Inside the Yorkshire mine that could help feed the world
‘It’s the only thing I’ve ever really done.’ John Pursglove, a veteran of mines from selby to Kellingley – Britain’s last ever deep coal pit – is recalling how the industry used to promise a ‘job for life’.
today he is back beneath the surface, scrabbling over debris and trudging through mud as he and his colleagues blast walls of rock at the Woodsmith mine in North Yorkshire.
Ground water drizzles down from the shaft above but Pursglove, 57, from Wakefield, is happy to be back home after stints in quarrying and working on London’s super sewer.
‘Air’s sweeter up in Yorkshire,’ he insists.
‘Rip off place, is London.’ Pursglove is one of 1,650 people working on Woodsmith, the multi-billion pound project led by mining giant Anglo American to polyhalite – a naturallyoccurring fertiliser that the developers hope will become a gamechanging global product.
Among the workers are veterans of Britain’s once-great coal industry, given a new lease of life by the chance to come back and use their decades of expertise.
‘there’s only a handful of us left,’ says Pursglove, while pouring doubt on the willingness of younger generations to put in the hard work needed to thrive in the pit.
‘they want the money but they don’t want to get dirty.’ Anglo hopes that from 2027 Woodsmith will be ready to start producing – beginning at a million tons a year and rising to 13million some time after 2030. A final investment decision on the project, which could see Anglo plough in a total of £7bn, is not expected for another couple of years.
Polyhalite, the company argues, can solve a looming problem: the need to feed a growing population even as the amount of land suitable for farming on shrinks, partly due to climate change. Backers say it can hugely improve crop yields while also having significant environmental benefits.
At Woodsmith, it is also bringing decent jobs to an area where employment tends to be lowwage and low-skilled.
there will be fewer roles when construction is complete – around 1,000. But it does mean jobs now for men like Pursglove.
He is part of a ten-member team working 11-hour shifts every day from 6am on a shaft at Woodsmith which will provide ventilation as well as links to the main production shaft and the tunnel that will ferry polyhalite away from the site.
they employ old-fashioned ‘drill and blast’ methods using explosives. Pursglove calls those operating more modern technology elsewhere at the site ‘push button miners’.
At the main production and service shafts, two gigantic, high-tech shaft boring machines (sBMs)
– named Hilda and Elizabeth – are doing the hard work. the giant machines extend down to the bottom of the shaft with 16-foot long arms at the end.
these ‘ booms’, shaped like giant toothbrushes, slice away at the rock beneath, at the same time sucking the debris away like a vacuum cleaner.
At one shaft, a team of 20 miners descends via a yellow steel ‘bucket’ that looks like a giant punchbag to oversee this work.
Before that they pass by an icon of saint Barbara, patron saint of miners and another sign that traditions are being kept alive and well.
It is not just English veterans working at Woodsmith.
signs translated into Russian reveal the presence of a large Belarusian contingent, hired for their expertise in this work.
Others have been brought over from Peru, home of Quellaveco - Anglo’s last big project, brought in on-time and on-budget by executive tom McCulley.
Now, McCulley is overseeing Woodsmith as chief executive of the group’s crop nutrients business. He speaks with an almost evangelical zeal about the project helping to solve a global problem: the need to feed two billion more people by 2050.
‘We need to grow the same number of crops over the next 40 years that we have in the last 8,000 years. How the heck are we going to do that?,’ he says.
Woodsmith is the ‘only large scale deposit of polyhalite known in the world’ he says – though a smaller site producing the fertiliser is already in operation at nearby Boulby.
He says polyhalite ‘will help change the world for the better’.
‘We hear a lot of comments about the competition telling us that we can’t sell the product or it’s not the right product,’ adds McCulley. In fact, hundreds of demonstrations at sites around the world have persuaded scientists and farmers to give it their backing, the company says.
that is crucial because polyhalite is not yet in widespread commercial use and must overcome doubts among investors, something Anglo says it is starting to do.
A key feature is that it contains four of the six most important nutrients: potassium, sulphur, magnesium and calcium. Because it is naturally occurring it is also suitable for organic use, and it helps to reduce problems like chemicals leaching into waterways.
It is also said to cut wastage by helping farmers grow more uniform products.
that means farmers across the world will be taking an interest in what is happening beneath the ground in North Yorkshire.
‘We were recently at a kiwi farm in Italy where farmers told us the problem is on a kiwi tree we have two big kiwis and one small one,’ said McCulley.
‘the small one is not paid for – that’s waste. Whereas with polyfour [as the product is known] the consistency goes significantly up.’ If all goes to plan, Woodsmith will be sending bits of North Yorkshire to farmers around the world for 100 years. Analysts think it could produce more than £1.5bn in profits a year for Anglo.
the company took over Woodsmith from the much smaller sirius Minerals in 2020 when it was struggling to raise the funds needed to sink mine shafts – but wiping out a lot of savings that locals had ploughed into it.
Developers overcame objections to its development in the North York National Park by promising to make Woodsmith as unobtrusive as possible – crucially by creating a 23-mile tunnel
‘Only large deposit of polyhalite on earth’
‘Could produce £1.5bn in profits a year’
to the mine from teesside, removing the need for lorries or trains to spoil the bucolic landscape above.
A giant tunnel boring machine, called stella Rose, has now made it 16 miles of the way – said to be a record distance for any such project.
Meanwhile, the task of sinking the mine shafts at Woodsmith could face a new obstacle.
they are progressing by about three feet a day but could slow further when the boring machines hit a layer of hard sandstone. that stands in their way before miners reach a thick seam of polyhalite estimated at 2bn tons.
McCulley says that is a concern – but that scepticism on the project among financial markets is abating.
‘ We have certainly seen a change in that this year as we have opened up and shown the world a bit more.’