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Saturday, August 04, 2007

Sand dredging on the Gower Peninsula

I am aghast to hear that Jane Davidson, the Welsh Assembly's Minister for Environment, Sustainability and Housing, has granted Llanelli Sand Dredging Ltd permission for the removal of more than a million tonnes of sand from the Helwick Bank, over the next seven years. This is despite a very obvious depletion of sand from many of Gower beaches, and in complete disregard of a 25,000-name petition presented to the assembly, protesting at the dredging application. The Assembly minister has also ignored the concerns of local organisations such as Gower Save Our Sands, the Gower Society and the National Trust.

I appreciate that Ms. Davidson is acting on the advice of experts, the majority of whom concluded, during a 13-month inquiry, that sand dredging has no impact on sand levels on Gower's beaches. But much of this inquiry was conducted on an unleveled playing field. As South West Wales AM Alun Cairns has pointed out, "if the Gower Society and other local groups had similar resources to the dredgers, then I'm confident we could prove the link between dredging and the loss of sand on the beaches."

There is a touch of anachronism to the Welsh Assembly's decision. They have proritised the desires of industrialists over the needs of the environment. Instead of a stinking, miasmic cloud from the copper industry, we now face damage to tourism and family-run businesses, as well as a greater risk of storm and flood damage to seaside premises, due to coastal erosion. The erosion of beaches and sand dunes is also a threat to the unique and delicate eco-systems they currently sustain.

I've asked the following question before in relation to sand dredging off the Gower coast, and will now ask it again: whatever happened to the precautionary principle? For those unfamiliar with it, the precautionary principle is a core component of international environmental law, which emerged in Germany in the early 1970's. Prior to this, whenever campaigners declared a particular industry or process harmful to the environment, the onus was on them to prove their claims. The introduction of the precautionary principle, shifted the burden of proof to those carrying out the suspicious activity. In other words, perpetrators should prove, beyond all reasonable doubt, that their activities are harmless, before they can proceed.

This principle was quickly absorbed into international environmental law. In 1982, the UN General Assembly adopted it as part of the World Charter for Nature. The principle was firmly incorporated into international environmental law in 1984, by the First International Conference on Protection of the North Sea.

Initially, the principle was interpreted fairly narrowly, mainly in relation to wildlife and marine life. But the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, gave the precautionary principle some teeth. Principle 15 of the agreement signed at Rio stated:

'In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by states according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.'

The precautionary principle was subsequently incorporated into the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, as signed by all member states of the EU. It now applies to activities likely to harm human life, as well as plants and animals.

Scientists and industrialists hate the precautionary principle. They claim it's a principle based on hysteria, evoked by the narrow-minded and ignorant, to resist change and 'progress' simply for the sake of doing so. These scientists point out all the good things to have arisen from scientific progress, e.g. medical advances. They cite these innovations as 'proof' that scientists would never engage in activities likely to cause harm, and denounce the "hysterical environmentalists". But we all know that harmful scientific processes have been carried out, such as the Porton Down experiments in the 1950's, when human subjects were used to test and monitor the effects of substances such as sarin and nerve gas.

The trouble with the precautionary principle is that it is still only a guideline, not a specific law. The same is true for the principle of sustainable development. You can view the UK government's definition of sustainable development here. It seems crazy that these principles have not been translated into statutory law. Sand may be regarded as a renewable source, but the processes which create sand are so slow, some sources suggest it could be as much as 200 million years before eroded sand is replenished. Given such a timescale, Gower's sand needs to be treated as a finite source.

Sadly, the Welsh Assembly, or the Welsh Ass as I've often called it, seems unable to comprehend this. Yes, we need sand for building essential infrastructures, but for Llanelli Sand Dredging Ltd to be obtaining this locally, amounts to exploitation of the local environment for profit. Vast areas of this planet are covered in sand. Removing a million tonnes from some of these areas over the next seven years, would have no detrimental impact. But of course, that would be too much like hard work, venturing into harsh environments, and then shipping it back to the UK with a reduced profit margin.

Maybe it's time for concerned local organisations and individuals to put their money where their mouths are, and I include myself in that statement. Surely, if the 25,000 signatories of the petition opposing sand dredging, each made some kind of financial contribution, it would be possible to at least launch a judicial review of the Assembly's decision? Is there anyone locally who could organise such an appeal? If anyone from NGOs such as the Gower Society, the National Trust, or Gower Save Our Sands is reading this, please at least consider whether it is possible for such an appeal to be organised. A judicial review is now the only way to saving Gower's beaches from the depredations of Llanelli Sand Dredging Ltd. In the meantime, it would do no harm to register your protest with both Llanelli Sand's parent company, by emailing them at, and also emailing Jane Davidson, whose address is

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