Could climate change cause another Aberfan in Wales?

The coal tip slip at Tylorstown

Today marks the 55th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster in South Wales – where over 100 children died when a landslide from an unstable coal tip engulfed their school. I remembered Aberfan as I walked through the Rhondda Valley on my journey and contemplated the continued risk to Welsh coal-mining villages. Here is part of the essay.

Even as the coal mines closed their environmental legacy remained. What was noticeable everywhere we walked through coal mining country was the absence of vegetation around many of the towns and villages that serviced the collieries. That’s because much of the waste material and tailings from the mines had been deposited, dumped actually, on the hillsides around the settlements. A few days before, as we’d walked through the windfarm above Penrhys, we’d seen for ourselves the problems this practice had caused.

Below us we’d looked down on Stanleytown and Tylorstown, once thriving coal villages named after English engineers that came to speculate for coal and made a fortune. Today both villages sat stranded and forgotten in the steep, glacial valley of the Rhondda Fach. Probably the most successful thing to come out of Stanleytown since the coal mine closed in the 1960s is the comedian Paul Whitehouse.

Tylorstown, however, had been in news just recently but not for good reasons. In February 2020 unprecedented heavy rainfall caused a 60,000 tonne landslide at the site of an old coal tip above the town. We could see it clearly from our position on the mountain – a wide black scar on the hillside across from us.

As we looked down at the landslide it hit home exactly how, when you scrape the surface of south Wales, the legacy of the coal industry is still evident and still affects the communities that live among its ghosts.

The warnings of more landslides also evoked memories of the Aberfan disaster a couple of miles northeast of where we now standing. On October 21st, 1966 at around 9.15am a coal tip that had been piled on a mountain slope above the town gave way, sending an avalanche of slurry pouring down upon Pantglas Junior School where the young students had just started their lessons. The entire school was engulfed and local people were forced to dig with their hands in a desperate and ultimately futile attempt save the children. In total 109 pupils and five teachers perished under the weight of the landslide.

The Aberfan disaster shocked the entire United Kingdom – reminding a nation that was increasingly seeing itself through the lens of modern of the brutal reality of its heavy industrial legacy. Many Britons were starting to enjoy owning TVs for the first time and the horror was exacerbated by the scenes of the aftermath that were broadcast on TV news. That horror turned to anger as it became clear the accident could have been prevented –  reports revealed that the coal waste had been dumped over a natural spring and that the government run National Coal Board had been aware that the tip was unstable. The tribunal convened to investigate the disaster laid the blame squarely on the Coal Board writing that the “Aberfan disaster could and should have been prevented.”

Now there seemed a very real danger that another Aberfan-style disaster might occur in the future. The Tylorstown tip was just one of nearly 300 old dumping grounds across the south Wales valleys that were at significant risk of slippage according to one recent report – a threat exacerbated by climate change geologists had warned.

All over the world the effect of climate change is being exacerbated by widespread deforestation – trees and vegetation help anchor soil to the ground preventing erosion and landslips during heavy rain. This is hardly a new issue. Experts have long pointed to the effects of deforestation caused by sugar cane plantations all over Haiti as a worst-case example, while recent mining operations in Indonesia and Malaysia denuded vast tracts of hillside land.

Here in the valleys the situation was doubly troubling. Not only had all the local and available trees been cut down for pitwood leaving the surrounding hillsides bare and exposed to the elements, the collieries had then made the situation worse by dumping its waste on already unstable ground.

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