17 August 2006
The UK government will break European law by cutting funds for cleaning up pollution from old coal mines, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) has warned.
In a toughly-worded letter to the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) in London, Sepa's chief executive Campbell Gemmell said he was "extremely concerned" that the budget for preventing dirty minewater from contaminating rivers was being slashed.
Centuries of coal mining in Ayrshire, Lanarkshire, Falkirk, Fife and Lothian have left a multimillion pound pollution legacy. After mines are closed and flooded, iron next to the coal seams is washed out into nearby streams, where it reacts with oxygen, rusts and turns bright orange.
Over the past five years, the DTI has been funding the Coal Authority to install filtration, settlement and other schemes at old mines. But as part of a drive to cut public expenditure across Whitehall departments, the Authority's budget is now being sliced from more than £6.5 million in 2005-06 to just £1m in 2007-08.
According to Gemmell, the cuts will make it impossible for the UK to fulfil its legal commitments under two European laws, the Dangerous Substances Directive and the Water Framework Directive. If an attempt were made to exempt the UK from its responsibilities, this would pose "very considerable presentational difficulty", he said.
He argued that funding the six priority clean-up schemes in Fife and Lothian identified by Sepa would cost between £6 and £9 million. "Expenditure on this scale over six years to avoid infraction action under the Dangerous Substances and Water Framework Directives does not appear disproportionate considering the resultant environmental and social benefits," he wrote.
Gemmell pointed out that cleaning up pollution from old coal mines brought amenity and fishing benefits to deprived areas. He added: "This reduction in funding is particularly unfortunate given the raised expectations for environmental improvement within coalfield communities."
In a few cases, preventative work was necessary to avoid the sudden leakage of contaminated water. "It is clearly unacceptable to allow major minewater breakouts which would be highly likely to lead to serious environmental damage," Gemmell said.
A copy of Gemmell's letter, sent to the DTI's Permanent Secretary, Sir Brian Bender, on 4 August, was released yesterday by Sepa in response to a request. Sepa's concerns were previously reported here.
Download a copy of Campbell Gemmell's letter to the DTI here (pdf).