The salt’s all mine

Mark Metcalf visits the North Yorkshire mine that's keeping our roads clear this winter

Up top it’s cold, a biting North Sea wind ensuring office staff hurry swiftly from their cars to their warm offices. But the miners waiting patiently to enter the cages that will take them down deep into the earth’s bowels for their 9.5 hour shift are heading for temperatures of 43 degrees centigrade and more.

Cleveland Potash’s mine, thousands of metres deep and stretching out under the sea from the North Yorkshire coast, is Britain’s biggest salt producer. Close to a million tons a year of the stuff are mined at Saltburn-on-the-Sea to keep Britain moving when snow and ice hit.

It’s quiet but the atmosphere will be a lot different on the ride back

Thanks to the biggest winding gear operation in the northern hemisphere it takes only eight minutes to descend the 1,300 metres to the mine. It’s quiet but the atmosphere will be a lot different on the ride back when despite tiredness the cage is alive with banter that wouldn’t be amiss on a Saturday night drinking spree.

As there aren’t many lights along the hundreds of miles of tunnel, stretching in all directions from three miles inland to around five miles out at sea, each miner must make sure his headlamp is in working order. Woe betide anyone though who ends up shining it in another man’s face, as John Chilton did soon after starting work at the mine a quarter of a century ago. After a good slap from one of the old timers, Chilton, now the miners’ union rep, never did it again.

Neither has he ever forgotten to take with him a good supply of iced water – essential for working in conditions that hit 48 degrees. “It’s warm down here,” laughs Chilton, who like most of the miners had cut away the bottom half of his overalls.
Getting to the workface involves a trip of around 20 minutes on the back of a small truck, its headlights lighting up the eight metre wide by 3.8 metre high tunnel walls.

On each day shift there’s around 200 people working underground, with about a fifth working directly on the face cutting either salt or potash., which makes fertiliser. Finding it can be more difficult than the salt, requiring refined drilling techniques.

As a long hole driller it’s Martin Wood’s job to drill up to two kilometres into a face. It means patiently adding over 600 three-metre pipes. It’s extremely hard work with few distractions as newspapers are banned and even if the radio did miraculously work so far down it couldn’t possibly make itself heard over the constant clatter.

“Yes, it’s hot, especially when you’re working under the ground rather than the sea,” says Wood. “You also must respect what can be a dangerous working environment. But I don’t mind the work as it pays me a good wage. I don’t have to travel far to get to work and there is a great relationship between all of us down here with some marvellous gallows humour.”

It’s a familiar story; jobs locally are in short supply. The nearest town, Loftus, has an unemployment rate of just over 20 per cent, and up the coast on Teesside the loss of jobs at the Corus steelworks means work is increasingly hard to find. Employment underground at Saltburn can mean earning up to £40,000 on a good year, bonuses making up a good part of a worker’s pay. It’s enough to see some travel from as far afield as North Shields and even Ashington, around 90 miles north.

There was a real possibility that many miners could have been made redundant

One way to eventually find permanent work on the site is to start work for a contractor, with close to 200 of the 900 on site employed by various firms there. Loftus lad Dave Craven did so as a banksman, responsible for ensuring people and products get up and down in the cage safely. After nearly four years, he’s been taken on full time. “I’m delighted as being made permanent means I can look forward to a pension, better pay, greater job security and health benefits.”

That’s certainly the case this year but, according to Chilton, there was a real possibility that many miners could have been made redundant last year when in the wake of the banking crisis no one could be found to insure an export order to Brazil worth £30 million. Only high-level intervention, with the government instructing the Export Credit Guarantee Department to help out, saved the day for the mine, which was opened in 1972 by ICI and taken over by ICL Fertilizers, a division of Israel Chemicals, 20 years later.

As a face worker for 17 years Chris Watson is glad to be still working and hopes to continue doing so for a good number of years yet. He’s not anti-management but has performed the role of safety representative for Unite for the last five years “to ensure that safety standards are maintained”.

Safe havens have been installed throughout the mine, where in case of a disaster miners can use breathing equipment and contact the outside world. Everyone is aware that a similar system saved trapped miners in Saskatchewan last year. It didn’t help though three years ago when Darren Compton, aged 24, was killed by a falling rock. With the Chile and New Zealand mine accidents fresh in mind, one wants to see another tragedy.

It means constant vigilance – especially when the heli-miner is boring noisily into the rock face. Its two giant cutting heads gorge out its valuable cargo, which is quickly transported along miles of conveyor belts to the processing plant above ground.

Last year, in the attempt to keep motorways and roads open, the miners were forced to work double shifts in a desperate race to extract as much salt as possible. But it still takes time to crush it to a size suitable for spreading everywhere, and as a result some councils, especially in the south, were left without supplies. This year Chilton was hoping, with management’s support, to persuade the government to stockpile up to a quarter of a million tons of salt for emergencies. It’s not happened and he’s concerned about what might happen if the current cold snap heralds a severe winter.

“At least we can be sure of being warm down here, although I still don’t think those that have to work Christmas Day want to,” he laughs.

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to The salt’s all mine

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.