HC Deb 20 April 1994 vol 241 cc869-70
2. Mr. Ronnie Campbell

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what plans he has to protect areas surrounding closed coal mines from the potential pollution of watercourses.

16. Mr. Etherington

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what discussions he has had concerning mine water pollution; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. Robert Atkins)

My hon. Friend the Minister for Energy is considering the detailed allocation of responsibilities in respect of coal mines after privatisation, as between the operators and the Coal Authority.

Mr. Campbell

Throughout the county of Durham, wildlife is being destroyed and farmers' fields are being flooded. Surely someone must take responsibility for the pollution. I know that the Government want to renege on their responsibility, but is not it time that someone stood up and took the matter in hand?

Mr. Atkins

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for —like others of his colleagues—raising that important matter, which we are seeking to address. That is why, following the last Environment Question Time when the matter was raised, I took it upon myself to talk to my colleague the Minister for Energy. At present, if there is a particular cause of pollution, the National Rivers Authority should be spoken to. If the hon. Gentleman has a specific case in mind and would like to talk to the NRA, but has been unsuccessful, I should be pleased if he would take the matter up directly with me.

Mr. Etherington

The Minister will be aware that the National Rivers Authority is of the opinion that the law is somewhat unclear about British Coal's responsibility for pollution. Does he accept that many people are afraid that when private enterprise has the responsibility—if it can be called that—of keeping pollution at bay, the situation might get worse? Can he assure the House that he will take the necessary action to tighten up the legislation and ensure that no additional burden falls on either water ratepayers or council taxpayers in the areas concerned where there is likely to be a diminution of deep mining?

Mr. Atkins

As I have said, I recognise the concern. The hon. Gentleman is unfair in his attack on private enterprise—in many areas, private enterprise has demonstrated a good record on environmental activity and pollution control—but I understand what he is saying. We have recently published a document called "Paying for our Past" and we have invited various people and organisations to comment on what we should do about contamination of the sort that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. I know that the hon. Gentleman's points, and those of the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) and the others who share his worries and concerns, will be dealt with when we consider the results of that consultation.

Mr. George Howarth

Is not it far from the case that the NRA has the responsibilities that the Minister has just suggested that it does? Does the Minister agree with Lord Crickhowell, the chairman of the NRA—no raving socialist, I understand—who said recently: There is a legacy of contamination for which no one is currently responsible, no one is prepared or able to pay the necessary clean-up bill, and no one is charged with the running—

Madam Speaker

Order. I am sorry, but I think that the hon. Gentleman is aware that he may not quote at Question Time. He may paraphrase, not quote directly.

Mr. Howarth

Certainly, Madam Speaker. Is not it clear from the comments of Lord Crickhowell that the responsibility that the Minister claims already rests with the NRA simply does not? Will the Minister undertake to the House that when the Environmental Protection Agency legislation comes before the House, he will consider using that opportunity to clear up the confusion? I assure him that, if he does that, he will get co-operation from the Opposition.

Mr. Atkins

Under the Water Resources Act 1991, it is an offence for mine owners to cause or permit the pollution of water courses. There is legislation, but I recognise that there are some questions about exemptions because of the retrospective aspect of the legislation.

Lord Crickhowell's comments during a debate in the House of Lords the other day are part and parcel of the consultation procedure. His views, as the chairman of the NRA, will be considered as important, along with those of others who respond to the consultation document on contaminated land.

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