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 the mines from Selby to Kellingley – Britain’s last ever deep coal mine – recalls how the industry used to promise a ‘job for life’.

Today he is back below the surface, clambering over rubble and trudging through mud as he and his colleagues blow up rock faces at the Woodsmith mine in North Yorkshire.

Groundwater is dripping from the shaft above but Pursglove, 57, from Wakefield, is happy to be back home after a spell in the quarries and working on London’s super sewer.

“The air is sweeter in Yorkshire,” he points out.

‘Rick off, that’s London.’ Pursglove is one of 1,650 people working on Woodsmith, the multi-billion dollar project led by mining giant Anglo American to extract polyhalite – a naturally occurring fertilizer that developers hope will become a breakthrough global product.

Groundbreaking: North Yorkshire’s Woodsmith mine produces polyhalite – a natural fertilizer that developers hope will become a breakthrough global product

Among the workers are veterans of Britain’s once great coal industry, who have been given a new lease on life by the chance to come back and use their decades of expertise.

“There are only a handful of us left,” says Pursglove, casting doubt on the willingness of younger generations to put in the hard work required to thrive in the pit.

“They want the money, but they don’t want to get dirty.” Anglo hopes Woodsmith will be ready to start producing from 2027 – starting with one million tonnes per year and rising to 13 million sometime after 2030.

A final investment decision on the project, which could see Anglo raking in a total of £7 billion, is not expected for a few 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 agriculture shrinks, partly due to climate change.

Proponents say it can vastly improve crop yields while providing significant environmental benefits.

At Woodsmith, it also provides decent jobs in an area where employment is typically low-paid and low-skilled.

There will be fewer roles when construction is complete: about 1,000. But it now means jobs for men like Pursglove.

He is part of a 10-strong team working in 11-hour shifts from 6am every day on a shaft at Woodsmith, which will provide ventilation, as well as connections to the main production shaft and the tunnel that will transport polyhalite from the site.

They use old-fashioned ‘drill and blast’ methods, which involve the use of explosives. Pursglove calls those working with more modern technology elsewhere on the site “push-button miners.”

At the main production and service shafts, two giant, high-tech shaft boring machines (SBMs) – named Hilda and Elizabeth – do the heavy lifting.

The gigantic machines extend to the bottom of the shaft with 4 meter long arms at the end.

These ‘thumps’, shaped like giant toothbrushes, cut away the rock underneath while simultaneously sucking away the debris like a vacuum cleaner.

At one shaft, a team of twenty miners descends via a yellow steel ‘bucket’ that resembles a giant punching bag to supervise this work.

Hands on: Mail reporter John-Paul Ford Rojas in the Woodsmith mine

Hands on: Mail reporter John-Paul Ford Rojas in the Woodsmith mine

To do so, they pass an icon of Saint Barbara, patron saint of miners and another sign that traditions are alive and well maintained.

Not only English veterans work 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 major project, won on time and on budget by director Tom McCulley.

Now McCulley oversees Woodsmith as CEO of the group’s crop nutrition business. He speaks with an almost evangelical zeal about the project that will help solve a global problem: the need to feed two billion more people by 2050.

‘We need to grow as many crops in the next forty years as we did in the past 8,000 years. How on earth are we going to do that?’, he says.

Woodsmith is the “only large-scale polyhalite deposit known in the world,” he says – although a smaller site producing the fertilizer is already operating in nearby Boulby.

He says polyhalite will “help change the world for the better.”

“We hear a lot of comments from competitors telling us that we can’t sell the product or that it’s not the right product,” McCulley adds.

Hundreds of demonstrations in locations around the world have convinced scientists and farmers to lend their support, the company says.

That is crucial because polyhalite is not yet in widespread commercial use and needs to overcome investor doubts, something Anglo says it is starting to do.

An important feature is that it contains four of the six most important nutrients: potassium, sulfur, magnesium and calcium.

Because it occurs naturally, it is also suitable for biological use and helps reduce problems such as chemicals leaching into waterways.

It is also said to reduce waste by helping farmers grow more uniform produce.

That means farmers around the world will be interested in what’s happening underground in North Yorkshire.

‘We were recently on a kiwi farm in Italy where farmers told us that the problem is with a kiwi tree. We have two large kiwis and one small one,” says McCulley.

‘The little things are not paid for, that is wasteful. While with poly-four (as the product is known) the consistency increases considerably.’

If all goes to plan, Woodsmith will be sending chunks of North Yorkshire to farmers around the world for the next 100 years. Analysts believe this could generate more than £1.5 billion in profits per year for Anglo.

The company acquired Woodsmith from the much smaller Sirius Minerals in 2020, when it was struggling to raise the funds needed to sink mine shafts – but wiped out many of the savings that locals had plowed into.

Developers overcame objections to its development in the North York National Park by promising to make Woodsmith as inconspicuous as possible – crucially by creating a 17-mile tunnel to the mine from Teesside, eliminating the need for trucks or trains to reach it spoiling rural landscape above.

A giant tunnel boring machine called Stella Rose has now traveled a distance of 25 kilometers – reportedly a record distance for such a project.

Meanwhile, the task of sinking the mine shafts at Woodsmith could face a new obstacle.

They progress about a meter per day, but can slow even further if the drills hit a layer of hard sandstone. That stands in their way before miners reach a thick layer of polyhalite, estimated at 2 billion tons.

McCulley says this is worrying, but skepticism in the financial markets about the project is waning.

“We’ve definitely seen that change this year as we’ve opened up and shown the world a little more.”

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