Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Earl of Kintore: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his helpful reply. I thank him also for tabling the

7 Mar 1995 : Column 144

government amendments which I shall study carefully. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 128A not moved.]

Lord Williams of Elvel moved Amendment No. 128B:

Page 45, line 9, at beginning insert:
("Subject to subsection (2A) below").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 128H, 170 and 174. I shall speak to those other amendments because they form part of a package, as I propose to explain.

There is a general problem of pollution from abandoned mines. That is recognised and I do not wish to go into detail or repeat the arguments which have taken place in your Lordships' House both during the passage of the Coal Industry Bill and also in Committee on this Bill. The severity of the problem has been illustrated by several bodies and studies, not least the review of November last year by the Department of the Environment.

Of course, the problem is not confined to abandoned coal mines. Metalliferous mines are affected also. They have the same toxic effects and are liable to pollute waters. As the Minister said in Committee, there is a somewhat anomalous legal position about who should or might be responsible for pollution caused by water from abandoned mines.

The Coal Authority, I understand, deals with abandoned coal mines, although the remit of the authority is not entirely clear. There are also abandoned metal mines. It is not clear from the regulations who is meant to deal with the pollution which arises or may arise from them. There are various categories of abandoned mine which have been dealt with by different bodies as and if problems arise. I do not wish to deal with the Coal Authority; it is the subject of a later amendment to be moved by my noble friend Lady Hilton. I wish to deal specifically with the amendments which I have placed before your Lordships.

In my view, there are two categories of abandoned mine. There is the category of existing abandoned mines, if I may use that expression; that is, mines which have already been abandoned and which constitute a threat. Those may be coal mines—many of which have been closed down over the past few years—or they may be metal mines of one kind or another.

The second category is mines which may be abandoned after the Bill becomes an Act. That is a slightly different category. I propose to deal with the two categories in that order.

So far as concerns existing abandoned mines, my amendments would ensure that any mine abandoned during the period between the date of Royal Assent of the legislation and the date from which the defence provided by Section 89(3) of the Water Resources Act 1991 ceases to apply should be treated as contaminated land. As we know, there are several procedures for the mediation of contaminated land which will apply even if the

7 Mar 1995 : Column 145

amendments that the Government are about to move—and which I imagine your Lordships will accept —are put into the Bill.

There is no intention in our proposal that the definition of "contaminated land" would normally apply to land under which abandoned mines are situated; indeed, it is not intended that any such question should be raised. All that matters is that the definition would refer to such land during the period specified irrespective of whether it did so otherwise. In other words, during that very limited period —and I shall say later just how limited that should be—the abandoned mine or mines would be treated as contaminated land.

I recognise that that proposal is a short-term solution. However, it is designed simply to ensure that there is no hole through which anyone can escape. In a way, it is a half-way house. It is so for two reasons. First, it is designed to give the Government time to determine what the role and, indeed, the funding of the Coal Authority should be; in other words, what should be the long-term solution for existing abandoned coal mines. We have heard many ministerial statements in that respect, but there is substantial doubt about the role and funding of the Coal Authority. Secondly, it would allow the Government to decide what to do about existing abandoned metal mines for which, at present, there appears to be no solution.

I turn now to the second category. So far as concerns any mines abandoned between Royal Assent and the date from which the defence against polluting controlled waters ceases to apply, they would be treated as contaminated land. But, again, I recognise that that is not an ideal solution. It is another holding situation. It is a holding situation which leads to the conclusion—and, because it is so, it should not last too long—that the date upon which the defence ceases to apply should be brought back and that it should not be a five year business. We believe that it should be put back to 1st January 1996. That is the object of Amendments Nos. 170 and 174.

At that point—if our proposal is adopted—the situation would become quite clear both for coal mines and for metal mines which are subsequently abandoned. Therefore, the amendments which I am putting before the House all hang together. They provide, first, an intermediate holding situation to what I acknowledge to be a difficult problem. They would allow space for the Government to come out into the open, if I may put it that way, on the Coal Authority's funding, and on its responsibilities, and on their proposals to deal with existing abandoned mines of other minerals. The Government could use that period to declare their hand.

The amendments also allow a new structure of responsibility to start operating from the date at which it should and not five years hence. As such, the amendments form a package which I hope will commend itself to the House. I beg to move.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Mason of Barnsley: My Lords, I should like to speak to Amendment Nos. 170 and 174. I believe that the Government must now be aware of the dismay that

7 Mar 1995 : Column 146

met their proposal in the coal legislation that effective legal responsibility on mine waters from abandoned mines would not come into force until 1999. The amendments seek the immediate abolition of the defence available to the owner of an abandoned mine and would not allow the defence to continue for another five years.

When the Bill was introduced to the House, noble Lords will remember that there was, in the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum, a special passage marked "Abandoned mines" which said:

    "Since these proposals are coming forward in parallel with the privatisation of the coal industry, there could be some adverse effect on proceeds to the Government. Accordingly, the removal of the statutory protections is being timed to reduce any possible effect".

In my opinion, that is the Government blatantly admitting that the reason for the delay in abolishing the defence is to reduce the possibility of an adverse effect on the proceeds of privatisation of the coal industry. Therefore, they have given a five-year safeguard. I find that quite incredible. It is a total disregard for the environment and for the likely pollution problems emanating from the cessation of pumping at abandoned mines.

Local authorities and National Rivers Authority regional officers in the coalfields are aghast. They fear the pollution of rivers and lakes allied with no responsibility being placed on the owner of an abandoned mine. The all-party Coalfield Community Campaign has expressed its concern that the Government's intention has been to maximise the proceeds from the sale of the coal industry and not the need to protect the environment of mining areas. That is a charge which should be answered.

The Government must be aware of the NRA report, Abandoned Mines and the Water Environment, which was published in March last year. It stated that in England and Wales alone 200 kilometres of rivers, streams and brooks are already affected by varying degrees of pollution from abandoned coal mines. In the Scottish coalfield alone, the report states that there are 134 kilometres of surface waters polluted from 110 discharges in the Clyde and Forth catchment areas alone.

If existing pumping by the Coal Authority were to stop before 31st December 1999, the length of polluted rivers would extend greatly and threaten some of our rivers of national importance. It also seems relevant that the Coal Authority, which is at present continuing to pump in areas such as Durham, South Wales and Yorkshire (where mines have already been abandoned), might become criminally liable if it stopped pumping, whereas it might not if, as proposed, there is a five year delay in abolishing the defence.

The Secretary of State for the Environment described the latter as "unique statutory exemptions". Well, of course, they are: they are favouring the potential polluters. The Government have given a commitment that the responsibilities of British Coal and the historical legacy of mining would be taken on by the new Coal Authority. Therefore, is it not unfair and unjust that the authority may be able to shelter behind that exemption in favour of abandoned mines? So far as concerns water pollution or even potential water pollution, there can be

7 Mar 1995 : Column 147

no doubt: the Government should not be content to rest on the present effect of the exemptions. If the existing rules remain, particularly on minewater pollution, private mine owners would have few environmental liabilities. The public sector would be placed in the position of having to clean up the pollution caused by privately operated mines. Moreover, what of the principle that the "polluter pays"? In those cases, the public would pay.

The Bill also fails to address the problems of long-time abandoned mines where pollution is already occurring. That is a problem, and a most worrying one, which faces mining communities. It concerns us that the legal loophole is to be removed only for coal mines abandoned up to the end of 1999.

There are approximately 23 former British Coal mines left, but scores of pits have been closed in recent years, with all the worries about cessation of funding. The Bill does not demand that, on abandonment, mine operators contribute to environmental protection costs or take account of the environment when they abandon a mine.

The Minister said:

    "we have taken the view that it would be right to allow those involved a period until the end of 1999 in which to adjust to the proposed changes in the existing regulatory regime because of the obvious practical and financial implications".—[Official Report, 31/1/95; col. 1484.]

Again it is a question of financial implications. So the Government remove a potential environmental liability and aid the sell off, irrespective of the pollution problems that might flow from cessation of pumping from an abandoned mine.

The truth is a disgraceful disregard of the looming environmental problems likely to hit our coalfield communities on top of the environmental degradation that we have suffered over the years from burning muckstacks, opencast coal mining, tipping sites and general industrial pollution. All of that is on top of the heartless mass closures of our coal mines, the massive rise in unemployment and wholesale misery in our mining villages. It is just not on.

I say therefore, on the environmental plane alone, that our people are worthy of a better, cleaner way of life. Mine water pollution of our rivers and reservoirs from abandoned mines will certainly affect the quality of life. Yet there is no sanction on private owners; they have no liability until after 1999. I believe that they should come under a legal statutory sanction immediately.

Also, the Coal Authority must not shelve its responsibility for its working mines by hiding behind this five-year exemption. It must be aware of its responsibilities for the countless numbers of abandoned mines in all our coalfields and the increasing dangers of pollution outbreaks from these old mines. There is a fear of a series of major pollution incidents from mine water discharges. The National Rivers Authority report identifies many significant water quality problems, including serious discharges from abandoned mines: 15 in Northumbria, 24 in the North West, four in Severn Trent, 21 in Wales and 36 in Yorkshire. There are over 10,000 abandoned mines, many containing pollution time bombs. We have already had a series of frightening

7 Mar 1995 : Column 148

reminders and there are likely to be many more. The Coal Authority, in alliance with the NRA, must start tackling those outbreaks.

Finally, the Coal Authority, now the owner of and responsible for all abandoned mines, should be required by statute to prevent, control and treat pollution from its abandoned mines regardless of when they were abandoned. Money should be afforded to the authority from the £1,000 million from coal mine sales and the moneys, estimated at £500 million, that will be made from the forthcoming land sales.

There is always a price to pay to protect the environment and to avoid environmental damage. The Government should now recognise their responsibilities in this regard and abolish the five-year defence for all mines and provide the moneys to the Coal Authority to help it protect our coalfield communities from these environmental dangers.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page