HL Deb 13 October 1994 vol 557 cc997-8

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress they are making in dealing with mine water in abandoned mines in the Durham coalfield.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, British Coal is currently maintaining the pumping operations which the National Rivers Authority considers necessary in order to prevent the pollution of the River Wear. The Coal Authority will take over those responsibilities on 31st October 1994.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, does the Minister recall the lengthy discussions that we had on this matter during our debates on the Coal Industry Bill before the Recess? At that time the Government gave firm promises of help to British Coal and the new Coal Authority regardless of any problems that might arise from the privatisation of the industry. Will the Minister say that those promises still hold and that there has been no change in the policy?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am aware of the discussions that took place on the Coal Industry Bill to which I was not a party although my noble friend Lord Strathclyde was. I have no reason to think that anything has altered from what he said then.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that the current exemptions that are available under the Water Resources Act 1991 have the effect of making it well nigh impossible to prosecute mine operators when their abandoned mines are responsible for discharges of pollution into the waterways? Can the Minister assure the House that the Government have it as their clear intention to close that legal loophole once and for all, and soon?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, like any other mine owner, British Coal must not cause pollution to any water course. Under the Water Resources Act 1991, it is an offence for mine owners to cause or knowingly to permit pollution of the water courses although the Act also provides that no person may be prosecuted by reason only of permitting water to flow from an abandoned mine. The Government have announced that we propose to review the legal framework governing water pollution from abandoned mines in general. Consultation papers on the issue were published earlier this year and the responses are being considered.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, I was glad to have the noble Earl's assurance in his Answer to my Question, but is he aware of the allegations that are being made that companies which are to buy the now privatised coal mines are bringing pressure to bear on the Government on the question of mine water? Will the noble Earl deny that such approaches have been made to the Government on this matter?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the Government find that pressure is brought to bear on them on almost every subject and I have no reason to think that there has not been any pressure brought to bear on this subject. However, neither have I any reason to believe that the Government have responded in a way that the noble Lord would find disagreeable.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, in connection with the new owners, if water seepage should occur as a result of previous workings within their coal-take, would that be the responsibility of the Coal Authority or the new owners?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, when a new owner purchases a coal mine, he undertakes the liabilities which that purchase carries with it. Finding out who is responsible would be a matter for legal distinction, but I shall ensure that that matter is considered.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, who will be responsible for monitoring what happens after the end of October? I understand from what the Minister said that the NRA has been responsible until now, but will that continue to be the case? In other words, will somebody watch what happens under the new authority?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the National Rivers Authority is responsible for monitoring the pollution— or rather, the anti-pollution—of rivers. It will fulfil that responsibility. The Coal Authority will be responsible for abandoned mines except where the responsibility is passed to the private sector through leases.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, did the Minister manage to take in the scenes on television at the weekend showing the demolition of the towers of the last pit in the Lancashire coalfield and observe the faces of the people who have had to suffer that? Does not the noble Earl feel a little bit ashamed about what appears to be an act of deliberate vandalism brought about by the Government's policy towards what could have been a successful industry in this country?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I failed to see that particular excerpt on television, but even if I had I cannot see that it has anything to do with the Question on the Order Paper which is about pollution.

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