English Castle Takes Center Stage for $3 Billion Mine Vote

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At a castle in the sleepy English seaside town of Whitby, planning officials will make the leap from deliberating on home improvements to deciding the fate of a $3 billion potash mine.

The 19-member panel will meet on Tuesday at centuries-old Sneaton Castle, a short stroll from the sandy coastline, to vote on whether to approve construction of a giant potash mine in the North York Moors National Park surrounding the town.

It will be standing room only at the 200-capacity venue.

“The seats are in very, very short supply,” said John Cook, chairman of the Yorkshire Coast Minerals Association set up to represent the interests of 190 local landowners who may benefit financially from the mine. “It’s been a bit of a local issue because a lot of people wanted to go.”

On the one side is the promise of money and jobs, with the developer, Sirius Minerals Plc, saying there would be more than 1,000 new positions at the mine. On the other are critics who say the project risks wrecking an area of outstanding beauty.

Sirius has plenty riding on the outcome. It has spent five years and almost $200 million preparing. Chris Fraser, 41, its chief and a former Citigroup Inc. banker, moved with his wife and two kids to the area from Sydney three years ago. (Whitby’s most famous son Captain James Cook is renowned for making the reverse journey to Australia in the 18th century.)


Long Hours

“The very long hours, the extraordinary amount of effort and work over the last few years does culminate very much on one day and one moment when hopefully more hands go in the air to approve the project than don’t,” Fraser said in an interview. Local people are overwhelmingly supportive, he says.

Investors’ faith in the project was rocked last week.

National Park planning officers issued a final report before Tuesday’s meeting that found the economic benefit of mining the fertilizer ingredient polyhalite, a type of potash, for 100 years didn’t outweigh the harm it would cause.

“The proposal, if approved, would represent a very significant departure from the development plan, failing the policy requirements of a number of the authority’s adopted planning policies,” they wrote in the 229-page report.

The greater public interest is in protecting the National Park for the nation and for future generations, the planners wrote, even while they offered no formal recommendation.

That sent Sirius stock skidding into a five-day losing streak, wiping 38 percent off the company’s value in London. The stock gained 2.9 percent to 17.75 pence at 11:12 a.m. in London on Friday after jumping 21 percent a day earlier. The company has a market value of 384.1 million pounds ($604 million).

Massive Pressure

“Our countryside is under massive pressure,” Rob Stoneman, chief executive officer of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, said in an interview. “This would set a dreadful precedent. National park authorities should not be allowing major developments within national parks. It’s very clear.”

To develop the York potash mine, Sirius plans to dig underground shafts within the 554-square mile (1,436-square kilometer) park before boring out the mineral from deposits under the land and the North Sea. The polyhalite will be crushed and milled down the mine before being fed into an underground pipe and taken as slurry to a port 28 miles away.

Supporters of the plan point to the U.K.’s only other commercial potash mine, owned by Israel Chemicals Ltd., that began production in 1973 on the nearby North Yorkshire coast.

“I can’t think of a major development coming to a local area that has ever had more support,” said Robert Goodwill, the Conservative lawmaker for the area. “People want their children to have jobs and their community to prosper.”

Fraser is leading a delegation of nine from Sirius to the meeting on Tuesday.

“Either way, we might have a few sherbets,” he said, using the Aussie slang for booze. “At least we’ll know where we’re going.”

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