According to informed industry sources, the cash set aside by two major coal companies before they collapsed this year only amounts to a quarter of the sum now needed to restore scarred landscapes as local communities were promised.
As a result most of the mines that are disfiguring large areas of East Ayrshire, Lanarkshire, Dumfries and Galloway, Fife and Midlothian are likely to remain derelict, or to be cleaned up on the cheap.
The revelations have prompted furious reactions this weekend from leading politicians, environmental groups and local communities. It’s a “national scandal” and a “betrayal”, they say.
The falling price of coal forced Scottish Coal into liquidation in April, and another opencast company, ATH Resources, to wind up in May. Their collapse threw the future of 32 opencast sites in six local authorities into doubt.
The sites were meant to have insurance bonds in place to ensure that the cost of restoring the sites could be met, whatever happened to the operating companies. But it has since emerged that the bonds were inadequate and, in some cases, had expired or didn’t exist.
Now the Sunday Herald has discovered from industry experts and published data that the gap between the money that councils have, and the money that they need for clean-ups, is huge – and much higher than previously estimated.
The most conservative estimate is that only £66m is available for restoration works that will cost over £255m, leaving a shortfall of £189m. But rising costs are almost bound to increase this to £210m, experts say.
By far the biggest problem is in East Ayrshire, where 22 sites face a £132m shortfall on a total restoration cost estimated at £161m. But there are also major deficits in South Lanarkshire (£34m), Dumfries and Galloway (£15m) and elsewhere (see table below).
A independent review commissioned by East Ayrshire from the Scottish government’s former chief planner, Jim Mackinnon, was due to be published this week, but it’s now been delayed until January so that “further work” can be done. The council, along with South Lanarkshire, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and the Scottish government, has gone to court to try and prevent Scottish Coal’s liquidators from disclaiming responsibility for restoration.
The Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, Willie Rennie MSP, is hosting a “coal summit” at Holyrood on Monday. “I have seen for myself the devastation that the collapse of this industry has had on the local communities and the environment,” he said.
“This new estimate reveals the true scale of the betrayal by those responsible and the mountain that needs to be climbed to make the mines safe and restore the land to what was promised.”
To the Green MSP, Patrick Harvie, it was a “national scandal” for which the coal companies must be held to account. “Taxpayers and local communities have been dumped on,” he said.
According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) there had been “an almost total failure” of the planning system. “That failure effectively amounts to a massive additional subsidy for the opencast coal industry, giving them free reign to trash our environment,” said Aedán Smith, from RSPB Scotland.
The Scottish Opencast Communities Alliance predicted that only a tiny fraction of the money needed would be made available, leaving communities with “the scars, the blight and the polluted water for many years to come.” The protest group, Coal Action Scotland, labeled it as “a classic tale of the interests of big business trumping those of communities or the environment.”
East Ayrshire’s chief executive, Fiona Lees, described the council’s £132m funding gap as “notional”. She said: “It has never been suggested that this amount or anything like it be spent by the council, or anyone else for that matter, and so alternative restoration proposals are being developed.”
In April the Scottish government set up the Scottish Mines Restoration Trust to try and find ways of solving the funding shortfalls. In an email at the time, released under freedom of information law, the trust was labeled as “very tricky politically” by its newly appointed chairman, Professor Russel Griggs.
The Scottish government said it shared community concerns about restoration. “No-one doubts the scale of the challenge but bleak projections of huge costs will not help solve or tackle those challenges,” argued a government spokesman.
“The reality is that local authorities have developed many good schemes in the past, implemented them with agreement of stakeholders, and they will do so in the future.”
The energy minister, Fergus Ewing, has written to the UK government asking for a levy taken from the coal mining industry to be used to restore mines. Last week ministers launched a consultation on how to ensure future mines were restored.
The money that’s missing to clean up opencast coal mines
council / no. of mines / set aside for restoration / cost of restoration / shortfall
East Ayrshire / 22 / £28.7m / £161m / £132.3m
South Lanarkshire / 4 / £13.5m / £47.5m / £34m
Dumfries & Galloway / 1 / £9m / £24m / £15m
Fife / 3 / £14.7m / £19.6m / £4.9m
North Lanarkshire / 1 / nothing / £2m / £2m
Midlothian / 1 / nothing / £1m / £1m
Totals / 32 / £65.9m / £255.1m / £189.2m
The opencast mines abandoned by coal companies
Chalmerston North Extension
House of Water
Spireslack Viaduct Mine
Dumfries & Galloway
St Ninians/Thornton Wood
There is a related story here.