A raft of internal emails released under freedom of information law reveal that Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) was repeatedly told by its staff not to allow the expansion of the Grievehill mine in East Ayrshire because of the dangers it posed to golden plovers, short-eared owls and hen harriers.
But, after being lobbied by politicians and threatened with legal action by the developers, SNH withdrew its objection and gave the expansion the green light in 2007. The following year, there was a “bog burst” at the mine, which ended up with the mining firm, ATH Resources, being fined £10,000 in 2010 for damaging a wildlife area.
Last year the company went bust, leaving Grievehill derelict and with nowhere near enough money to restore the landscape as had been promised. Conservationists are now worried that SNH has not learnt from its mistakes.
“This new information on what was happening behind the scenes only increases our frustration with the way this coal mine application was dealt with,” said Aedán Smith, head of planning and development at Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland.
“It was always clear that SNH staff shared our concerns about the environmental damage that would be caused by mining this important wildlife site. It was therefore extremely surprising when they pulled the rug from under us and Scotland’s wildlife by dropping their objection.”
The resulting mess was “a sad reminder of the risks of capitulating to developer and political pressure”, argued Smith. “SNH must be able to operate independently and provide advice based on science and professional experience and judgement, without being pressured by politicians and developers who do not necessarily have the best interests of Scotland’s wildlife at heart.”
Work was started at Grievehill opencast coal mine near New Cumnock in 2005, and ATH Resources applied to extend the site in 2006. SNH objected to the extension in 2007 because it would damage the Muirkirk peatlands, which are legally protected by two conservation designations.
The released emails show that in 2006 and 2007 SNH staff were strongly in favour of objecting, with one suggesting “we have to take a pretty hard line”. But in August and September 2007, SNH received letters from two local Labour politicians, Sandra Osborne MP and Cathy Jamieson MSP, urging that the extension be given the go ahead to preserve jobs.
At the same time lawyers acting for the developer threatened legal action if SNH blocked the extension. In October 2007, SNH’s Graeme Walker wrote an internal memo expressing “concern at the apparent softening of our stance” on Grievehill.
He said: “While I have a specific concern at the potentially irreversible damage to the habitat that could be incurred, I have a wider concern at the impact that this weakening of our stance could have in relation to other sites within the central belt coalfield.”
Nevertheless SNH then withdrew its objection, allowing the extension to go ahead. Roddy Fairley, a senior manager at SNH, pointed out that it was not uncommon for SNH to be lobbied by politicians and lawyers about controversial developments.
SNH only withdrew its objection after an unusual and legally binding mitigation plan had been agreed, he said. “Though there were some members of staff that would have preferred there to be no extension to the opencast workings, there was not any persuasive view that the mitigation eventually proposed was less than adequate,” he added.
“If others are worried that this approach represents SNH “rolling over” in the face of demands from developers, my feeling is that it shows the opposite. Not only did we require a legally binding commitment from the developer, but we also drove the issue into the courts when it went wrong.”
SNH was, however, criticised by Greta Roberts from the Mining and Environment Group Ayrshire (MEGA) for “watering down” its objection. “SNH has good professional staff at local level, but HQ is too close to the Scottish Government and is clearly not acting as guardians of our environment,” she said.