HL Deb 30 June 1993 vol 547 cc802-4

2.47 p.m.

Baroness Nicol asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they propose to prevent subsidence and landslides, and the possible pollution of water supplies, following pit closures.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Baroness Denton of Wakefield)

My Lords, it is the responsibility of British Coal to consider and assess the environmental implications of its proposals in relation to the closure of individual pits. There is close liaison between British Coal and the National Rivers Authority on all questions relevant to the authority's responsibilities, including any implications of proposed pit closures.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer, but is it not the case that the final responsibility in this case must be that of the Government? After all, we are talking about a nationalised industry. Is she aware of the recent press reports which show that, particularly in County Durham, the closure of certain mines may lead to subsidence, landslides and pollution of water supplies if pumping out does not continue? Is the noble Baroness saying that the Government have no responsibility in this case?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, quite rightly identified this as a serious problem, about which the Government are indeed concerned. British Coal and the authority have been in discussion regarding potential problems in the North East for some considerable time. I am delighted to say that in this instance, as in many others, the media are ahead of the facts. Pumping has not ceased at the mines in the North East. I hope that I can reassure the noble Baroness by saying that the Government will ensure that British Coal's current role in respect of the physical legacy of historic mining will be carried on after privatisation.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, it is precisely on the point of privatisation that I should like to ask the noble Baroness a question, because from my past experience I am well aware of the sense of responsibility which the National Coal Board and British Coal have had in these matters. When the industry is possibly broken up under different ownership, how will these matters be regulated and carried out?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, the noble Lord has much experience in that area. It is experience which indicates that taking action in advance is the best way to deal with the question of subsidence; otherwise it may be too late. The principle that the polluter pays will be retained. However, perhaps I may assure him that in the 1992 environment White Paper the Government gave an undertaking to consider what long-term measures may be needed to deal with water pollution from abandoned mines. It is a matter which is well in focus.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that some of the pits which will be privatised will go out of business in the normal course of events leaving no one responsible? To what extent will the Government take bonds with regard to privatised pits to ensure that there are funds to meet liabilities?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I do not have an answer on that issue, but I shall obtain one and write to my noble friend.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, what steps are Her Majesty's Government taking to ensure that no slippages or landslides take place in the areas where recently coal mines have been closed? The Minister will appreciate that the Aberfan tragedy is still very much in the minds of people in Wales. We are desperately anxious that no comparable crisis or tragedy occurs again. Does adequate communication and co-operation exist between British Coal and the local authorities? The local authorities are very much alive to the dangers that exist in their areas.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, the noble Lord draws attention to a tragedy which I believe will stay in people's minds for ever. All tips are required to be inspected at specified intervals by civil engineers. Under present legislation, local authorities can serve notice on any tip owner to carry out necessary works to prevent a tip constituting a danger.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, is the Minister aware that pollution of water supplies is already occurring? Where pits have been closed, pumping has ceased, and still waters near the coal mines are dependent on pumping water from the pits to keep the water pollution free, sewage is already developing, algae blooms are occurring, and fishing has had to cease. Water pollution has already begun. Will the noble Baroness draw the attention of British Coal and the National Rivers Authority to the issue? As chairman of the Anglers Co-operative Association in Wales, I am guarding the interests of fishermen and anglers. We are worried that pollution has already begun. Something ought more properly to be done about it.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord looks after the interests of his friends with much energy. Under the Water Resources Act 1991, the authority can prosecute those responsible for unlawful discharges. I shall draw the attention of the authorities to the noble Lord's question. I am sure that he, too, will draw the attention of the authorities to the problem.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon

My Lords, it is estimated in relation to the Durham coal mine in particular that it will cost £2 million a year to keep the pumping stations open. The Government pick up the tab for decommissioning nuclear power stations, so surely it is the responsibility of Government to pick up the tab for maintaining the pumping stations in future, at least in the North East coalfield and elsewhere where pollution may occur.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, the noble Baroness confuses two issues. However, as I stated in my original Answer, the commitment from the Government to ensuring that matters are resolved is absolute.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, many of us would have gained the impression from the exchanges so far that subsidence and water pollution after the closure of pits were related solely or mainly to recently closed pits. Is it not a matter which lasts sometimes for generations after the closure of former mining areas?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, my noble and learned friend draws attention to the fact that it is not an instant problem. It is a matter on which we have ensured that there will be answers when it occurs. We have no knowledge of situations where coliery closures have been directly responsible for a landslip activity.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the problem has been described by the environmental director of Durham as a potential environmental catastrophe? Bearing in mind the anxiety about privatisation, and what will occur after privatisation, will she assure the House that the exact legal and financial responsibilities for the mines which are to be privatised will be clearly outlined in the legislation to be brought before this House?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, the noble Lord has expressed his anxiety on this issue on earlier occasions. Perhaps I may again reassure him that it is an issue which will be well identified in the Bills to come before the House.