Community and environment groups are warning that the Scottish government is preparing to allow coal companies to break their promises to restore defunct mines in order to try and help the deeply troubled industry.
Because of financial difficulties, Scottish Coal said last month it was axing 450 of its 758 workforce, and closing four of its nine opencast mines. Another opencast company that operates five mines in Scotland, ATH Resources, went into administration in December.
The Scottish government told the Sunday Herald that its industry deregulation guru, Professor Russel Griggs, was leading a working group “to explore issues affecting the Scottish coal industry”. Amongst the issues under review was “the restoration of future opencast coal sites”.
Griggs, who chairs the Scottish government's Regulatory Review Group, has been asked by the energy minister, Fergus Ewing MSP, to brief MSPs on progress. The briefing is due to take place at Holyrood on 17 April.
Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, pointed out that communities suffering opencast mining had been assured that the huge holes, heaps and dirt tracks would be cleaned up. “It seems these promises are being widely broken and the government may even be working to let the industry off the hook at more sites,” he said.
“These companies have made large profits at the expense of the environment and local businesses. Instead of trying to prop up an ailing industry, the government needs to guarantee that overdue restoration work will get underway.”
Dixon added: “The Scottish government urgently needs to reassure communities and planning authorities that no developer will ever be allowed to simply walk away from their obligations to clean up after themselves.”
The campaign group, Coal Action Scotland, has evidence that the restoration of at least a dozen old opencast mines in Ayrshire, Lanarkshire and Midlothian has been delayed or abandoned. The restoration of the Chalmerston mine in East Ayrshire, which ceased production in 1998, is now 14 years overdue, the group says.
Oliver Munnion, a member of Coal Action Scotland, accused the government and industry of holding talks “behind closed doors” without consulting the people most affected. "Our fear is that communities across Scotland are being sold out by the Scottish government which seems to be preparing to allow the industry to break the promises it made to clean up the enormous mess it has made,” he said.
Rural communities were being “sold out” to protect private industry, he claimed. “Many Scottish Coal sites are woefully behind in their restoration with some lying unrestored for 10 years or more. Why should they be given support to open new mines when they've broken so many promises already?”
According to Labour’s shadow environment minister, Claudia Beamish MSP, communities had a right to expect opencast mines to be restored. “We need to be wary of accepting a situation where this obligation is relaxed and scaled back,” she said.
"While we will listen to Professor Griggs' work on the broad issues affecting the coal industry, we are clear that this work must not come at the expense of the environmental concerns of communities affected.”
The Scottish government said that the working group headed up by Griggs involved stakeholders across the coal industry. “This government is doing all it can to protect Scotland’s coal industry, and that includes looking at the best ways of sustaining opencast coal sites,” said a government spokeswoman.
“We are working with local authorities, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, landowners and coal operators to ensure the best restoration outcome of legacy sites for the communities directly and indirectly involved in the coal industry in Scotland.”
Scottish Coal confirmed it was working with the government to address the challenges facing the industry. "We greatly appreciate the support that has been offered in dealing with these challenges,” said a company spokesman. “And we are doing all we can to ensure that a sustainable mining industry is preserved, benefiting communities and employees alike.”