Mine life. From making a mess to clearing it up

Andy Craggs, Dave Hepple, Sean Box, and Alastair Pentland have one special thing in common. They – or their family members – worked down the coal mines in the north of England.

Back in the day, coal mining may have had some negative effects on the environment. Yet many of the people who worked in the coal mining industry are now in jobs doing innovative things to negate those impacts.  

Today, Andy, Dave, Sean, and Alastair work for Oren Environmental – a business that’s part of Severn Trent Services offering mine water treatment, reed bed maintenance, and large-scale desludging services to organisations nationwide.

On behalf of the Coal Authority, they treat the water from disused mines to prevent pollution. As Andy, operations manager, says: “You could say we’ve gone from making a mess to clearing it up!”

The “yellow babby”

The last working coal mine to close its doors was Kellingley Colliery, North Yorkshire in 2015. Now lying dormant, these former mine workings collect gallons of water that must be treated before reaching nearby waterways. That’s because mine water typically contains harmful levels of iron, heavy metals, and saline.

Dave Hepple, site operator, says: “The iron in the mine water turns a shade of ochre when it meets the air. I remember when we were kids, if we came home looking rotten, our mother used to ask us if we’d been playing in the ‘yellow babby’. These were rivers with ochre running through them!”

Andy adds: “Back in the day, there wasn’t the same concern for water quality as there is now.” Sean, site operator, agrees: “I didn’t know much about mine water treatment either until I left the pit.”

The pit patriarchy

Andy’s electrical check-list (little red book)

The National Coal Board – and British Coal thereafter – were the main employers in many northern towns and villages. Workers knew one another and it wasn’t uncommon for family members to work together too.

Andy began his electrical apprenticeship at Marley Hill Colliery in 1978, inspired by his dad who was the manager of a nearby colliery called Morrison Busty.

When Marley Hill closed in 1983, Andy was transferred to Philadelphia Works – a large, above-ground workshop where mining equipment was repaired. He was part of the area pump team whose job it was to install pumps at non-operational collieries to stop them from flooding.

Alastair, an environmental operations manager, remembers his dad working with Andy as a fitter in the same area pump team based out of Philadelphia Works.

Sean also became a mine worker because of his dad, who was a beltman at Hatfield Colliery – the second to last mine to close in the UK. Sean returned from a holiday one day to discover his dad had organised an interview there. He was a sixth-former studying IT at the time but ended up spending seven years at the colliery doing a variety of jobs from winder to rescueman.

Sean’s grandad also worked down the pit but was killed in the Bentley Colliery paddy train disaster of 1978.

Sean’s Dad

Colliery conditions

The jury is out as to whether the four would work down the pit if it was open today. While the physical conditions were challenging, the camaraderie more than made up for it.

Andy says: “As an apprentice, I always used to put my hand up to work underground because not all jobs took you down the pit.

“And of course, the pit canteens were infamous. Fish and chips, followed by treacle pudding – it was lovely!”

Alastair recalls the stories his dad told him about the shower blocks: “Everyone knew each other down the pit. But as pits closed, mine workers looked for new opportunities at other collieries. And if you were an out-of-towner, or a fresh-faced apprentice, the older miners would give you a bit of banter in the showers!

“There was this one time – and I’m not even sure how true this is – but a newcomer on a night shift rang for the cage to get a lift back up. He was jokingly told to get in the coal cage – as opposed to the personnel cage. Apparently, it shot him up to the top like a rocket and he ended up being sick!”

Sean’s ‘passing out’ as rescueman

For Dave, the pull of pit was the wages. In 1980, the £80 per week doing conveyor belt maintenance was more than he could get working in other jobs – despite swearing never to become a miner after a school trip down the pit when he was just 16.

Dave explains: “Surprisingly, it was a fantastic place to work. Yes, it was a dirty and dangerous job, but the camaraderie was special. You knew you were in the company of people who would help you out if anything went wrong.”

Sean experienced a variety of conditions during his time down the pit. He says: “If you were on the inby (coal face) it was red hot humidity. If you were on the outby (further from the coal face) it was freezing and wet.

“It was a labour-intensive job. Noisy with all the machinery. And unhealthy too, gobbling down coal dust every day. But I do miss the people. I mean, it’s almost lunchtime now and I haven’t seen a single soul today.”

The epicentre for green innovation

When the coal mines began to close, redundant mine workers often found employment in other industries, but the area pump team continued pumping water out of the disused mines to keep them dry. As more collieries closed, the focus switched from pumping to keeping the nearby aquifers and waterways pollution-free.

In 2015, Severn Trent Services won the contract to manage the water treatment schemes on behalf of the Coal Authority and subsequently inherited some of the workforce.

Today, the team are trialling innovative and sustainable ways to treat water from disused mines at many sites.

Andy says: “One of the sites my team operate is the Dawdon treatment plant that was once a colliery employing 3,798 workers at its peak. Pre-treatment, the water contains around 57mg of iron per litre and that falls to just 2mg post-treatment.

“We also make sure the water levels stay as they should so that untreated water doesn’t escape to nearby aquifers, or to the North Sea.”

The site is heated by mine water which is a renewable source of energy. In fact, the plans are to use this sustainable heat source to heat up to 1,500 new properties being built in Seaham.

Alastair adds: “At other sites, we’ve adopted pioneering ways to manage and maintain reed beds which are a very sustainable way of treating water.

“There’s no doubt our coal industry background is giving us a distinct advantage in the job we do today in helping to promote biodiversity, reduce greenhouse gases, lower carbon footprints, and prevent pollution.”