Fertiliser boss who has helped to mine a rich seam for the North

The Woodsmith polyhalite mine in North Yorkshire will bring much-needed jobs and investment to the area. City Editor Ros Snowdon speaks to one of the leading figures behind it.

In July, Emmerson, the Moroccan focused potash company, appointedGraham Clarke as its new CEO

Graham Clarke knows a thing or two about mining potash in Yorkshire, having spent the past 35 years digging up the miracle fertiliser in the region.

He spent 26 years at Cleveland Potash, which owned the Boulby Potash Mine on the North York Moors.

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This was followed by eight years on the senior executive team at Sirius Minerals, overseeing all technical aspects of the development of the Woodsmith polyhalite mine in North Yorkshire.

The Woodsmith Mine is one of the largest and most complex underground mine developments for a generation and Clarke was instrumental in its development, playing a key role in obtaining planning permission following years of intensive engagement.

"The Woodsmith mine was a massive challenge," he says.

"I was there for eight years and really was part of the journey from this crazy vision to getting the project through to construction.

"I very much enjoyed the challenge. There were lots of things on that project that people said we wouldn't be able do, but we managed to do it. It was great."

Clarke has lived in North Yorkshire for 35 years, after moving to the Whitby area in 1985.

"You very much become part of the community," he explains.

"Any big employer in this part of the world is really important. The Sirius Project gave me an opportunity to be part of bringing jobs to the area for decades to come.

"There were technical challenges, but being able to deliver long lasting benefits to what is a beautiful part of the world where well paid jobs aren't that common was a great thing to be part of."

Clarke welcomes the rescue of the mine after mining giant Anglo American bought it for £405m, despite many small Yorkshire investors losing money after the share price crashed.

The plan for the mine involves tunnelling under North York Moors National Park to exploit what is thought to be the world’s largest deposit of polyhalite, a multi-nutrient fertiliser. Anglo expects to invest around £235m in both 2020 and 2021 on the project.

Anglo bought it just before the Covid-19 pandemic and analysts say that without Anglo's investment, hundreds of jobs would have been lost.

"I agreed with Anglo's takeover of the mine," says Clarke.

"With Anglo, the mine will get built. It will operate for years and provide security and benefits from the project.

"A large part of why I was engaged, and put so much into the project, was to deliver the legacies and that was secured with Anglo. I can only see that as a good thing."

Clarke explains that plants need six nutrients to grow: nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, sulphur and calcium.

"With the growing population around the world, people need more food. We've got to do that from less agricultural land so the only way to do that is to apply fertilisers and in a balanced, smarter way."

While a number of people are concerned that the Woodsmith mine could damage the North York Moors National Park, Clarke is adamant that it will enhance the area.

"We spent a lot of time and effort on all the environmental assessments," he says.

"Once construction is finished, it will be invisible and will have no impact on the surface at all and, therefore, no impact on the moors."

Clarke says the mine set a new benchmark in sustainable development.

"There was a huge amount of effort put in and we understood the importance of the National Park and the North York Moors," he says.

"There was a lot of engagement with local people and a huge amount of support. People have been blown away by the efforts that have been made to minimise the impact.

"Post construction, nobody will even know it exists. It will have minimum or no impact on the moors. There were payments which will help support the park and develop it and I think improve it in many respects.

"Beautiful parts of the world are great, but if there's no employment, no thriving economy, there's no local village shops because there's no-one there to buy anything."

In July, Emmerson, the Moroccan focused potash company, appointed Clarke as its new CEO.

Clarke says: "The potash mine I'm working on now will produce potassium chloride and maybe potassium sulphate, but the polyhalite at the Woodsmith project contains potassium, magnesium, sulphur and calcium so it contains four of the nutrients. That makes it unique."

Clarke started his career as a graduate trainee at the Boulby mine 35 years ago, where he shaped a safety-first culture.

"I joined Cleveland Potash as a very fresh, naive, young graduate mining engineer, initially thinking I would spend a couple of years there, but I worked my way from a job underground to managing director," says Clarke.

"It's a high risk environment. It's about how you deal with that. It's about the culture. It's getting people to behave in the right way and getting them to think about what they're doing.

"It's a job of management and leadership to create that environment and culture where everybody believes safety is the most important thing. The reality is that working safely generally means that you work more efficiently."

Clarke was born in Lancashire, but prefers to see himself as a Northerner.

"I've lived in the Whitby/ Sandsend area in North Yorkshire since 1985. This is definitely home now. The North Yorkshire coast is one of the most beautiful parts of the world, without a doubt.

"I was brought up as a Lancastrian, but I've realised the North of England is the North of England. I count that as Lancashire, Yorkshire and further North.

"The North has always been fundamental to the success of the UK as a whole. The wealth of this country has historically been based on what happens in the North - the manufacturing, the industry, steel, in this part of the world.

"The North drives the UK's success as far as I'm concerned. I'm a proud Northerner and I'm very happy that my home is in North Yorkshire."

After 35 years in Yorkshire, Clarke says he wouldn't live anywhere else.

"What I like about Yorkshire is the openness, honesty, friendliness and sense of humour. The countryside is spectacular, but that's nothing without people," he says.

"You can talk to anybody, anywhere, and have a conversation. The biggest contrast is when you go down to London and you can't look anybody in the eye and have a conversation."

He says that Northerners are prepared to work hard and they care deeply about their local environment.

"Northerners are proud about where they're from and where they live. That's what I love about the North," he says.

"That is a Northern thing. That's what I miss when I leave. There's always a feeling of security and safety when you've been away and you come back. You're amongst friends and it's a good place to be.

"You heave a sigh of relief when you see the coastline. People are very proud to be from Yorkshire."

Curriculum Vitae:

Where were you born: Widnes, England

Date of birth: October 4, 1963

School: Merchant Taylor’s School, Crosby

University/Further education: University of Nottingham

First job: Graduate trainee at Cleveland Potash Limited

Favourite film: The Italian Job, 1969 version!

Favourite holiday destination: Kalkan, Turkey

Last book read: The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy

Favourite type of music/ band/singer: Jazz

What are you most proud of: My family