Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Mason, speaks with vast authority on these matters. The House will understand why we miss his formidable contribution to the affairs of the NRA.

I do not need to add much to what the noble Lord said about the five-year gap before the removal of the defence afforded by Section 89 of the Water Resources Act 1991. He quoted the comments of my noble friend Lord Ullswater on 31st January. He did not quote an introductory remark by my noble friend, when he said that the decision:


The noble Lord, Lord Mason, spoke of the impact and the financial implications and whether that was a good reason for acting. However, we are faced with a dilemma. While there are clearly financial implications, if this measure is of great significance as a means of improving the quality of discharges, then one needs a good reason for delaying its introduction. The delay causes me concern.

There are other matters which also worry me. My noble friend Lord Strathclyde, speaking as long ago as 26th April 1994, made it clear that the Coal Authority will be the owner of abandoned mines throughout Great Britain irrespective of when they may have been worked. There comes a point when the Coal Authority takes over responsibility. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, reminded us, there are not only coal mines to worry about, there are also metalliferous mines. He said that metalliferous mines could be just as polluting as coal mines. In reality they may well cause greater pollution. Our experience, certainly for example with the Wheal Jane tin mine, is that the "nasties" that they release may be a great deal nastier than those normally experienced with coal mines.

There is a serious anxiety to be addressed here. If the Coal Authority is to pick up the responsibility for coal mines it is by no means clear where responsibility for metalliferous mines is to lie or from where the resources for dealing with the problem are to come.

7 Mar 1995 : Column 149

While it may be important that the removal of the defence is postponed for five years, there is a longer-term problem which also needs to be addressed. The Bill does not give the agency any new powers to require action to be taken to deal with already abandoned mines or mines that may be abandoned up to the year 2000. Essentially, the agency will have to continue to rely on the existing legislation and on non-statutory memorandums of understanding.

We need an answer to the question as to what route the Government think should be taken to deal with old, orphaned metalliferous mines. I do not pretend that it is an easy problem. The costs can be very great, as we discovered with Wheal Jane. It would at least be helpful if we had some indication from the Government as to how they think the problem might be tackled.

There is also one further issue which concerns me. It is the relationship of the legislation we are proposing to put in place with the directives of the European Union. Perhaps I would test my noble friend a little severely if I asked him to give me an immediate answer, but I should be grateful if at some stage he could say what is the legal position with regard to the dangerous substances and ground water directives. It is by no means clear to me whether coal or metalliferous mines are exempted from those directives. If they are not, how is it that the Government can allow the exemptions from the Water Resources Act to continue until the end of the century? It seems possible at least that the Government are opening themselves to the risk of challenge in the European Court. It is therefore not just a question of a gap. There is the real possibility of a conflict between our own and the European legislative position.

These are difficult issues. We have to face the fact that the costs of dealing with the problems can be great. I would be the first to argue that we have to choose our priorities, and to choose them with care. I do not for one moment argue that the new agency, or the Government, should be expected to rush in to deal with the discharge from every closed mine. There are mines which have been discharging discolouring water, often for centuries, without causing serious damage. Indeed, there are red rivers all around this country and the world. There are great companies—I refer to Rio-Tinto Zinc—named for that very reason. However, specific rivers which are affected by coal mine closure, and other metalliferous rivers, involve a very real threat and danger. We need some indication from the Government on how they intend to address the problems.

I conclude by reminding the House that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, took us a considerable step forward in giving the commitments that he gave at an earlier stage about the role of the coal authority and the role that the Government envisage for the coal authority in tackling mines that have been abandoned.

5 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, I wish to muse for a small moment of time on the contrast between exemptions given to disused mines and the absolute offence of the pollution of a river by a private person or

7 Mar 1995 : Column 150

a private company, however good the defence is. It seems to me that a difference in values is being applied here.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, in supporting the group of amendments, I make one comment. The Government took a welcome step forward on the last day of the Report stage when dealing with environmental costs and benefits. They accepted that in that context costs include costs to the environment and not only the cash costs to individuals. It would be helpful and welcome if that principle could be applied to this serious issue. The Government's thinking having moved forward, I hope that the particular as well as the general provision will illustrate that.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I have no idea what my noble friend will say in reply to the debate. However, I hope that the words spoken by the noble Lord, Lord Mason, will receive particular attention. Those who live in the mining areas have strong feelings. Whatever difficulties the Government may have, or however the Government may feel, those who live in the mining areas feel that they have been treated shabbily and that their interests have not been taken into account. If I may say so, I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Mason, put the point with great restraint and effectively. I very much hope that his words will be carefully weighed.

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, we have leapt from an amendment on the definition of contaminated land, which the noble Lord, Lord Williams, moved to redefine abandoned coal mines as contaminated land, into abandoned mine provisions which are the subject of Clause 55. Although I should like to reply to the noble Lord, Lord Mason, and to my noble friend Lord Crickhowell, it would probably be as well not to go into too much detail because we shall go over the issue substantially on the amendment in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, on abandoned mines.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt. However, if the House proposes to accept the amendment, we shall not move those amendments. I regard the group as a package.

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Crickhowell indicated from my remarks at Committee stage that the provisions in Clause 57 represented a significant step. Coal owners have had the exemption now enshrined in the Water Resources Act 1991 since 1875. Therefore to end an exemption is quite a significant step. People have relied on that exemption for 120 years. That is one of the reasons why the amount of time is considered to be important: that we should not make such change right away but allow a certain amount of time for the industry to get used to the change in values.

The amendments moved by the noble Lord, Lord Williams, would affect the potential overlap between these contaminated land provisions and the separate legislation concerning water pollution from abandoned mines.

7 Mar 1995 : Column 151

As noble Lords may be aware, Clause 57 removes, for mines abandoned after 31st December 1999, the defence against prosecution and the exemption from recovery of costs by the agency in cases where polluting water is permitted to flow from an abandoned mine.

It was no part of the Government's intention that the current clause, establishing the contaminated land powers, would have the effect of removing the existing defence and exemption which apply in the circumstances. However, that appears to have been the inadvertent result of the existing provisions in the Bill, and the Government will be bringing forward an amendment at a later date to rectify this.

The amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, would point in the opposite direction, however. Not only would they remove outright the existing defence and exemption, they would also provide that any abandoned mine would be treated as contaminated land as a matter of definition, no matter when it was abandoned. This would apply regardless of whether the mine was actually causing, or likely to cause, significant harm or the pollution of controlled waters. However, it would still place local authorities under a duty to serve remediation notices in respect of those mines.

This somewhat strange provision would then just as strangely lapse at the end of 1999, when the existing defence and exemption concerning permitting water from abandoned mines to enter controlled waters ceases to have effect for any mines abandoned after that date.

Instead of removing the statutory protections from 31st December 1999 in cases where water is permitted to flow from an abandoned mine, Amendments Nos. 170 and 174 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, would instead remove them for mines abandoned after 1st January 1996.

We consider that removal of the defence and the exemption will contribute towards the control of pollution from mines which are abandoned in the future. It is, however, a significant change which may create new potential liabilities and also has practical implications for existing owners and operators of mines. It is also possible that some land values will have taken account of the existence of the statutory protections. For those reasons we have allowed a period for adjustment in setting the date for their removal.

The noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, commented on the impact of Clause 57 on the proceeds from the privatisation of the coal industry. I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving me an opportunity to correct the impression that has been gained from the financial memorandum. It is obvious—I do not for a moment attempt to deny it—that proposing new legal liabilities affecting mine owners and operators in particular could have an adverse effect on privatisation and proceeds. Equally, it is obvious that the impact is likely to be larger if the industry is given less time to adapt to those new legal provisions.

However, the memorandum should not be read as meaning that this was the only or even the principal reason for choosing 31st December 1999 as the date after which the amended regime would take effect. But to lay to rest any suggestion that the Government have

7 Mar 1995 : Column 152

put privatisation proceeds above the proper protection of the environment, I point out that the arrangements under which British Coal's mines were privatised incorporate important safeguards in respect of any future abandonment. Under those arrangements, the mine operator has to give the Coal Authority six months' notice of any proposed abandonment and a report on the consequences, except in the case of real emergency.

As regards the consequences for the water environment, the report is to be based on consultation with the appropriate regulator, the agencies or the present bodies. The operator then has to take all steps necessary to ensure that the mine can be returned to the authority in a satisfactory condition; that is, a condition which does not expose the authority to future liability. If necessary, the operator would have to make an appropriate payment to the authority for any continuing cost before he could relinquish the lease. Any fair-minded person will agree that those measures, which are the basis on which the mines were privatised, anticipate to a large degree the new responsibilities which will be introduced with more general effect through the Government's proposals in the Bill. Consequently, any remaining impact on privatisation must be small.

The noble Lord, Lord Mason, said that he believed that the pollution from coal mines affected a considerable mileage of controlled waters. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Crickhowell would confirm that the latest NRA survey shows that pollution from abandoned mines currently affects only 1.5 per cent. of river length in England and Wales, and that only 0.5 per cent. is polluted by abandoned coal mines. So my noble friend's supposition is right. Pollution from other metalliferous mines is more damaging than from coal mines, at least on a percentage basis of the waters.

I understand the anxiety put forward by my noble friend Lord Peyton that these are important matters. We would not wish to minimise the problems. However, I have indicated that the steps we propose to take are significant and I suspect that we shall discuss them later this evening. We need to consider what my noble friend Lord Crickhowell said about the EC directives on dangerous substances and groundwater. We need to ensure that we do not fall foul of directives. However, I indicated that I do not wish to accept the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Williams, because of the difficulties it poses. I therefore ask him to withdraw it.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page