HC Deb 19 October 1994 vol 248 cc268-9
8. Mr. Mullin

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what recent discussions he has had with the National Rivers Authority about emissions from abandoned mine workings; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford)

My Department maintains regular contact with the National Rivers Authority about this and other matters. The NRA report published in March on this matter of concern was taken into account in our consideration of the legal framework for abandoned mines.

Mr. Mullin

Is not it a plain fact that there is absolutely nothing to stop British Coal or its successors turning off the pumps and walking away and that, if that happens, the River Wear, one of the most beautiful waterways in Britain, and many others will be devastated? Who will pay the costs of maintaining pumping after British Coal has disappeared? What assurance can the Minister give that pumping will be maintained for as long as is necessary?

Sir Paul Beresford

I am rather disappointed that the hon. Gentleman clearly has not done quite as much homework as his earlier requests, comments and correspondence implied. The NRA is the enforcing authority and the Coal Authority will be responsible for the safety and environmental aspects of abandoned mines, including subsidence and effects on the water environment, except where the responsibility rests with the private sector. They have a specific budget for this purpose, and the Coal Authority will maintain all necessary pumping operations to prevent such water pollution; in fact, the appropriate Minister from the Department of Trade and Industry made that clear in another place during the debate on the Coal Industry Act 1994.

Sir Anthony Durant

Does my hon. Friend agree that the NRA is doing a remarkably good job clearing up such pollution? Is not one of the problems the fact that some of the old mine workings predate even the nationalised coal industry and that we have a major problem in this respect?

Sir Paul Beresford

That certainly is correct and it is the reason for the approach that we are taking with the NRA and the Coal Authority.

Mr. George Howarth

I welcome the Minister to his new post, but I must tell him that, in assuming his new responsibilities, he should be aware that everyone, including local authorities in mining areas, the NRA and British Coal, agrees that the present situation is wholly unsatisfactory. Will he accept that it was irresponsible of the Government to pass the Coal Industry Act 1994 without resolving once and for all the grey areas that bedevil the subject and thus ensuring that we all knew how the problems were to be dealt with? Does he realise that if, during the passage of an environmental protection agency Bill, he can come up with a formula for resolving the problems, everyone in the coal areas will be grateful and he will receive the Opposition's co-operation?

Sir Paul Beresford

Interestingly, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, although I welcome his forward-looking approach. We all accept that this is a difficult matter, but steps are being made in the right direction. I remind him that the consultation document "Paying for our Past", which is now completed, will allow us to continue our review.

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