A MINING firm is being accused of exploiting the coronavirus crisis to carry out excessive blasting at a controversial opencast site.

Campaigners who live near the Bradley site, near Consett, claim Banks Mining could be in breach of planning permission by carrying out double the amount of blasting it is allowed to.

June Davison said lockdown restrictions mean Durham County Council officials have not been visiting the site as often.

Ms Davison, who is part of the Campaign to Protect the Pont Valley, said blasting was carried out on four consecutive days between April 27 and 30, double the amount she said it is supposed to.

She said: “The explosions seemed very close, have been alarmingly loud and vibrations were felt in people’s homes.

“Following the blasting, huge dust plumes have been visible.

“Several residents living around the site have submitted formal complaints about noise and dust from the site.

“The distance between homes and the blasting area in Banks’ West Bradley application is only 150m, on fact it’s only 80m form the popular Jolly Drovers pub.

“Local people are extremely concerned that without scrutiny from DCC who are the mineral planning authority for County Durham, there will be no way of knowing whether the Banks Group have breached planning conditions and encroached on the 500m stand-off zone.”

Ms Davison said Banks Mining recommenced work on the site shortly after lockdown restrictions were imposed in March.

She said: “Though it’s not considered safe for DCC officers to carry out site monitoring inspections, Banks Mining continue to operate.

“This not only puts their staff at risk but others as unnecessary travel increases the spread of the COVID 19 virus.

“Local residents have been advised that ‘in the absence of officers visiting sites it is important that if residents have concerns then they should record them and provide the necessary details to the council for investigation.”

Banks Mining has permission to extract 500,000 tonnes of coal from the land and has applied to Durham County Council for permission to remove a further 90,000 tonnes of coal and 20,000 tonnes of fireclay.

Stuart Timmiss, the council’s head of development and housing, said: “We are aware residents have ongoing concerns regarding this site and the live planning application, and I would like to reassure them that we are carefully considering all of the points made as part of our planning process.

“Although we have previously been unable to undertake site visits, this position has now changed.

"A site visit took place this week, in accordance with social distancing guidance, and we will carry out further visits when the restrictions begin to ease.

“In relation to the lockdown, we do not have any powers to enforce sites to close down, as this is a decision for the individual operators.”

Mark Dowdall, environment and community director at The Banks Group, says: “We take all community feedback and complaints seriously, ensuring that each issue is investigated and, where appropriate, action is swiftly taken.

“Since we started work at Bradley in May 2018, we have received 55 complaints, most of which we understand originated from a resident at High Stables.

“Every one of these alleged incidents has been investigated and reported back to the council and to the local liaison committee.

“Most of these complaints were not justified, apart from six issues where quick remedial action was taken by our site management to resolve the matter.

"It is therefore not surprising that as we approach a date for a planning decision on a small extension to our Bradley surface coal mine that we have once again received further unjustified, false allegations and alarmist claims about our operations and working practices.

“Monitoring by Banks and by Durham County Council is continuing in accordance with the site’s planning conditions, as are all our operations there, and no public footpaths would be temporarily closed without alternative routes being agreed and opened first.

“The Bradley mine is part of the supply chain to the steel manufacturing industry classed as essential by the government, and we have been working closely with our customers to en-sure that we continue to supply them with the coal that they need to make raw steel.

“Given the extraordinary public health and economic challenges facing both the North-East and the wider country, both now and once the pandemic has been dealt with, it makes greater sense than ever to meet UK industry’s continuing need for essential minerals such as coal and fireclay from UK resources, rather than continuing to increase our reliance on overseas supplies which release greater greenhouse gas emissions through their mining and transportation.

“Doing so also supports skilled northern jobs and supply chains, delivers regional environmental and conservation enhancements, and boosts the UK’s balance of payments.

“The health, safety and well-being of our colleagues, our contractors and our local communities is always our absolute priority and our surface mines are continuing to operate in line with the latest Public Health England and government guidance.

“Additional safety and hygiene measures are in place to protect our highly-skilled Bradley team members, and we are grateful for their continuing commitment during these challenging times to ensuring that, with international trade under increasing pressure, British industry has ready access to the essential supplies of coal that it needs.”