MINING operations at a controversial opencast coal site are now underway, according to the company behind the scheme.

Banks Mining has said work at the site, near Consett, County Durham, has started, but protestors claim conditions of planning consent are being breached because an access road is not yet built.

The company, which has until June 3 to fulfill planning obligations, said the construction of the road access road to the A692, between Leadgate and Dipton, was ‘ongoing’.

Lewis Stokes, community relations manager at The Banks Group, said: “We’re very pleased to have reached this milestone at Bradley, and to have been able to commence mineral extraction from the Bradley site.

“The road improvements are required to form a new access to the Bradley site, ensuring that all vehicle movements onto and off the site can be carried out as safely as possible.

“We have planned the required highways work carefully in conjunction with Durham County Council and Durham Police, and will undertake it as quickly and efficiently as possible so as to minimise disruption to local traffic.”

Site operations are scheduled to run for between two and three years, with all on site activity complete in 2021.

Campaigner Shirley Falkenau, from Consett, said: “Planning permission can only be triggered once the road works have been completed, as outlined in the section 106 agreement between Durham County Council and UK Coal.

“As Banks Group have taken over the conditions of the planning approval they have to act within this agreement. The council is responsible for enforcing the conditions.”

Permission was granted after a legal battle despite Durham County Councillors’ decision to reject the scheme on environmental grounds.

Protestors camped by the roadside at the entrance for several weeks to delay progress with the aim of preventing the firm being able to start work within the permitted timeframe.

Durham Constabulary has so arrested 16 people, and said ongoing protests were beginning to affect community policing.

Stuart Timmiss, head of planning and assets at Durham County Council, said: “The S106 agreement referred to requires the protected right hand turn works to have been completed prior to the commencement of soil stripping.

“As these highway works have not yet been completed, the S106 requirements have not been met. However, in accordance with legal advice, we do not consider that this impacts upon the works undertaken by Banks to lawfully start the development.”