HC Deb 10 February 1993 vol 218 cc987-9 3.54 pm
Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law applicable to pollution offences and anti-pollution works and operations under the Water Resources Act 1991 in so far as they relate to abandoned mines; and for connected purposes. I seek leave to introduce the Bill at this time because it is highly relevant—[interruption]

Madam Speaker

Order. A number of rather loud conversations are going on. The hon. Gentleman is having some difficulty in making himself heard.

Mr. Wardell

I am grateful to you, Madam Speaker.

I seek leave to introduce the Bill at this time because it is highly relevant to the plans for the coal industry. The discharge of waters from working mines into rivers is controlled through consents issued by the National Rivers Authority under section 89 of the Water Resources Act 1991. That section allows the NRA to protect rivers and streams from pollution by the imposition of conditions relating to the quality and quantity of the discharge and the proper monitoring of the water that is pumped out of the mine. Moreover, under section 161(1) of the Act, the NRA can carry out remedial or preventive works and reclaim the costs from the polluter.

When mining ends, however, there is a completely different picture. As the mine is abandoned, the pumps are stopped, and as the ground water seeks its pre-industrial revolution level, the tunnels and shafts fill with water. Whereas in a working mine any water is pumped out before prolonged contact with minerals or heavy metals, as the workings of abandoned mines fill, the water becomes contaminated by minerals. Where the contaminated water breaks through to the surface, it pollutes.

Usually, the pollution is highly visible because it is in the form of a red-stained sediment from dissolved iron salts. Such water is highly acidic. The sediment coats the bed of water courses and literally suffocates all life which might support fish. It ruins the spawning gravels for breeding fish and leaves only some species of algae to grow into thick blankets of unpleasant-looking cover. That affects the overall ecosystem of flora and fauna—in particular, bird species. Sometimes, the water is also contaminated by traces of cadmium, zinc and other heavy metals, and such invisible pollution has far more serious implications for the food chain.

Notwithstanding the position that I have described, as soon as a mine is abandoned and the pump switched off, pollution controls over discharges are removed. Under the Water Resources Act 1991, abandoned mines are specifically exempt from regulation. Under the Act, a mine operator such as British Coal may "permit" water to enter water courses by switching off the pumps, but it is deemed that British Coal does not "cause" the outflow. Presumably, mother nature is to blame. That means that, under the law as it stands at present, the operator of a coal mine or any other mine can walk away from his enterprise; there is nothing that anyone can do about it.

In January 1992, we saw the catastrophe that follows from the inadequacies of the present situation when the operators of the Wheal Jane tin mine in Cornwall went bankrupt. Few people will forget seeing on television the 10 million gallons of brick-red water that had surged into the River Carnon, seeping downstream to foul the Restronguet creek, the Carrick roads and Falmouth bay and threatening the Helford estuary.

Subsequently, at Devoran bridge, cadmium levels were measured at 600 parts per billion, which should be set against the five parts per billion standard set in the dangerous substances directive. Similar results were obtained for other heavy metals. The NRA, the county and district councils and the Government have had to fund a massive clean-up programme which is still under way. There are 88 private mines operating in south Wales at present. There is a need to ensure that the environment is protected if and when those mines cease to operate. If the Government plan to sell off coal mines, it must be realised that, when a company decides that a privately owned mine has completed its profitable life, that company walks away from the mine with no further responsibility for what happens when it floods.

It is inconceivable that the Government should proceed with the sale of any mine without defining who is responsible for abandoned mine waters.

One solution would be for an agency, funded by a levy on extracted coal, to assume long-term responsibility for clearing pollution from abandoned mine waters. The Water Resources Act 1991 would be amended so that the agency would no longer be exempt from normal pollution controls. Section 161(4) of the Act would be amended so that, when the agency did not deal with the pollution to the satisfaction of the National Rivers Authority the authority would have the power to carry out the work and reclaim the costs from the agency. In that way, the NRA and the Government could meet the statutory duties imposed on them by the EC in relation to water quality standards. At present, that duty is not being met.

Of more immediate concern to local authorities, the NRA and conservationists is the result of the Government's decision to close 31 pits—or is it 20 or 10 pits? Who knows? It must be realised that, regardless of the number of pits which are closed, such closures will not mean simply that many more rivers will be polluted.

Many mines have not been totally abandoned when mining has stopped. Because of the safety requirements of nearby newer mines, pumping may have continued in old workings. Since the Oakdale colliery was abandoned in 1990, the River Sirhowy has been polluted by discharges for 1.5 km so far. When Oakdale closed, there was no longer any reason to continue pumping at Celynen north colliery, which closed on 31 March 1985. The subsequent break-out of water from that colliery has led to visual pollution of 2 km of the River Ebbw—threatening the environmental gains for a river which has been steadily improved at considerable cost since 1968.

British Coal has spent more than £1 million a year pumping disused pits in County Durham to protect the working coastal pits. If those pits close, the pollution potential will be enormous. Similarly, Derbyshire has many old mine workings which are pumped to protect newer pits, especially in the linked Nottinghamshire coalfield. Derbyshire county council is concerned about the pollution in its area that will result if the Nottinghamshire pits close.

Throughout the British coalfields, mining in the past was carried out with no appreciation of environmental consequences. We have been encumbered with depress- ingly ugly spoil tips and derelict buildings. In Wales, so far we have at least 29,000 recorded abandoned shafts, drifts and adits.

In Yorkshire, discharges from abandoned mines are causing serious pollution to 40 km of river. In England, a total of about 250 km of rivers are affected by abandoned mine waters. That is likely considerably to underestimate the problem.

In south Wales, the Welsh Office is supporting research initiated by the Wales NRA to identify affected streams where pollution is unrecorded. But we know that more than 30 miles of streams and rivers, amounting to 4.5 per cent. of our classified rivers, are contaminated by waters from abandoned mines.

Members of the Welsh Select Committee visited sites early last year, including some in my constituency. They saw the effects of pollution on the river Cathan at Garnswllt, the 1 km of the River Morlais between the closed Brynlliw colliery and the river Clyne which is polluted for its entire length as it runs through the Clyne country park and down to the sea. The River Pelena, also in west Glamorgan, is known as the yellow river.

Those eyesores can be tackled only through Government funds for land reclamation schemes. I hope that before colliery closures or sell-outs take place, adequate effective legislation is established so that these problems are not added to.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Gareth Wardell, Dr. Kim Howells, Mr. Ted Rowlands, Mr. Denzil Davies, Mr. David Hanson, Mr. Don Dixon, Mr. Ray Powell, Mr. Tom Clarke and Mr. Ken Eastham.