HL Deb 05 February 1992 vol 535 cc259-61

2.45 p.m.

Baroness Nicol asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made in controlling pollution from the Wheal Jane tin mine, near Truro, Cornwall.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, the National Rivers Authority and the mine's owners developed contingency plans for treating discharges from the mine. Since it closed last spring they have been closely monitoring the situation. The contingency plans were put into effect when the mine started discharging last November. The owners decided, on 4th January, that pumping and treatment had to be suspended for safety reasons. There was a discharge of untreated water as a result of an unexpected underground collapse on 13th January. Pumping and treatment operations have resumed. The NRA is working hard to develop medium and long-term arrangements for treating the discharge.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. I am encouraged to hear that action is again being taken. However, since the law is clear about the responsibility in the case of nationalised mines—namely, that the Government have to deal with any pollution and make the mines environmentally safe—does she agree that it is evident that questions must now be raised about what happens in the case of privately owned mines? Should there not be advance financial provision to deal with it? Would that not be a sensible way to proceed? Does she feel that it would be helpful to have a public inquiry so that all those aspects could be aired and used in future cases?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes an important point. First, we recognise that there can be difficulties in the case of abandoned mines. The difficulties are more practical than legal. The present owners of land will often have no connection at all with mining and may not even have the resources to meet the costs of dealing with discharges on their land. That makes it difficult to apply the polluter pays principle. Nevertheless, the polluter pays principle is very much still in place.

We are familiar with the issues raised by this case. They are not new. An inquiry specifically for the Wheal Jane mine would not be appropriate; but the NRA is working out short, medium and long-term plans for abandoned mines. My own department is currently investigating the policy side of how to deal with abandoned mines.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Frogmat about which I wrote to her would be very applicable to controlling the pollution that these mines have created?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. There is also another technology —reed beds—which can "gobble up" pollution in a way that is most effective. Certainly some of the larger chemical industries are using it. We believe that it has an application in this case and that is being investigated.

Earl Grey

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that when the mine was closed the Department of Trade and Industry decided that an investigation into the possibility of future hazards and pollution was not necessary? If that is the case, may I ask why?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Lord is not quite right. It is not necessarily a responsibility for the DTI, which would be concerned about the company. The company has been funded to the tune of £23.4 million in relation to protecting jobs. In fact, the National Rivers Authority investigated the impact of the closing of that mine. It has continually monitored the position and moved in very quickly when there was a problem. It has also to be said that this is a tin mining area. There are high levels of metal in all the river courses in this area. It is a very large problem. The NRA is seized of it and is doing what it can to address the short, medium and long-term problems.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I must declare a professional interest in that I advised the Transport and General Workers Union about this mine some years ago. Is there any prospect of it ever being worked again?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my understanding is that the mine will not be worked again.

Lord Norrie

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether, in the case of an abandoned mine, the Mines and Quarries Act exempts the owners from liability?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend puts me on the spot with that question. I am not sure about whether disused and abandoned mines are caught under the auspices of that Act. I shall investigate and write to my noble friend.

Baroness David

My Lords, will the Minister say who will compensate for the inevitable losses to the fishermen and the tourist industry in Cornwall? We gather that the oyster beds at King Harry ferry and also, I presume, the oyster beds in the Helford River will be affected and the losses to the fishermen and a great many other people will be very considerable. Cornwall already has quite a lot of pollution to put up with.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Baroness has information that is slightly different from mine. There has been continuous testing of the waters. The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Department of Health have advised that the estuary where shellfish are mainly found has been declared safe. The position continues to be monitored and that particular problem does not at present arise.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, will the noble Baroness clarify one point? I believe she said that in general the polluter pays principle applies. However, I understand that at present the Carnon Consolidated Company, which owns the mine, is still pumping the mine, or doing some work. Yet the National Rivers Authority has already spent £100,000 on work that it has had to do. How did the division of expenditure come about, and will it continue?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it is partly the principle being applied. The National Rivers Authority is predominantly funding the work but the Carnon company is doing the work. Carnon, in a responsible way, is shouldering some of the responsibility for having been the owners of the mine. However, the predominant funding comes from the NRA.