HL Deb 27 June 1995 vol 565 cc599-601

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied with the long-term arrangements and responsibilities for the control of minewater pollution.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Viscount Ullswater)

My Lords, the Environment Agency will carry forward the regulatory role of the National Rivers Authority. The Environment Bill introduces measures which will enhance the agency's powers to address this issue. Discharges from mines abandoned after the end of 1999 will be regulated in the same way as all other discharges.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that it is the Government's belief that if the pumping of minewater ceases the consequences will be devastating? Despite what the Minister has just said, is not the main issue that no one has responsibility for the matter? As the Coal Authority is the obvious body to shoulder that responsibility, why do not the Government make that a statutory duty of the authority?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I suspect that the question of ceasing pumping needs to be dealt with on a coalfield by coalfield basis. The noble Lord says that the consequences may be devastating. That may not be true in every case. Certainly the Coal Authority has confirmed that it will maintain all the pumping operations which have been identified by the NRA as necessary to prevent water pollution. That includes pumping formerly carried out by British Coal, especially to prevent pollution of the River Weir.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, will the noble Viscount not agree that under the regime of the National Coal Board, and later of British Coal, the control of minewater pollution was clearly the responsibility of those bodies, but that under the present arrangements responsibility is shared between the Coal Authority, the new owners and various regulatory bodies? Is there not a serious risk that under that mixed arrangement, which replaces a single responsibility, minewater pollution might begin to cause damage?

Viscount Ullswater

No, my Lords, because the Coal Authority is now responsible as the owner of all abandoned coalmines, except in so far as any part of that responsibility has been transferred to private sector operators through leases. However, through those leases private sector operators are still responsible to the NRA for the risk of pollution and also to the Coal Authority as the owner. The Coal Authority has confirmed that it will seek to address the pollution problems inherited from the past—in other words—from British Coal, within its available resources and in the light of priorities to be agreed with the regulatory bodies. I do not believe that there has been a change of course in any way.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, does the noble Viscount recall that during the course of the proceedings on the Coal Bill, the liability for pollution from abandoned mines was purposely delayed in order to protect the proceeds that the Government expected from the sale of the coal industry? Therefore, the new coal owners—the Budges of this world—are exempt from liability if they pollute rivers and streams as a result of any of their operations until 1999. Is that not a classic example of the Government pursuing profits from privatisation to the detriment of the environment and conservation?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord is confusing two distinct Bills. The coal privatisation Bill made operators give six months' notice to the Coal Authority of any proposed abandonment and produce a report on the consequences. It may be necessary for the operator to make appropriate payments to the Coal Authority to deal with continuing costs when relinquishing a mine. The date that the noble Lord quoted of 1999 is the date introduced by the Environment Bill, which removes the statutory defence which has been law for over 100 years.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that minewater pollution has been a major problem in South Wales over many years? It causes a great deal of concern generally throughout the valleys of South Wales. Will the noble Viscount say what action is being taken at the present time? Is he in a position to talk to the Secretary of State for Wales about it?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the Coal Authority is discussing with the NRA at present, and will do so with the Environment Agency in the future, priorities for pumping or disposal in other ways. As the noble Lord will recall, the agency will cover Wales as well. Other techniques are being investigated. It is not just a question of pumping. I see no problem regarding communicating with the acting Secretary of State for Wales.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, in his Answer to my noble friend Lord Dormand of Easington, the Minister referred to the fact that a regulatory body was needed because there might be differing degrees of pollution from mines. However, whether the pollution is minor, not severe or very severe, what is the difference in principle? My noble friend and colleague seeks to establish who picks up the bill. Will the Minister give an undertaking that it will not be the public?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the issue is the same for everyone; it is a completely level playing field. It is an offence for mine owners, whether the Coal Authority or any other owner of a coal mine or any other mine, to cause pollution of water courses. The Coal Authority can be prosecuted in the same way as any other mine operator, whether a mine is active or abandoned. But the statutory protections apply only where water is permitted to flow from an abandoned mine.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, does the noble Viscount accept that there was a clear distinction between the undertakings given in this House on the passage of the Coal Bill by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and the provisions of the Environment Bill? On this serious problem the Government seem to have copped-out (if I may use that expression) from the assurances that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, gave to the House.

Does the noble Viscount further agree that the Government have made no provision for the problem of metal mines from which pollution is equally important—in some cases more important—as that from coal mines?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I believe the noble Lord is wrong in imputing that the Government have acted in a way which is not entirely consistent with my noble friend's assurance during the passage of that Bill. The Government then made it clear, and now make it clear, that as regards water pollution liabilities the Coal Authority would not rest on the effect of the defence and exemption provisions but would seek the best environmental result obtainable from the funds available to it. The Coal Authority has undertaken that it will do that. During the first year of its existence since October 1994 it has done that.

The noble Lord is quite right: there is more pollution from metal mines than from coal mines. That is why we have sought to remove the exemption. However, in order to give operators and owners an opportunity to adjust to the new liabilities, the date of the end of 1999 has been introduced.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, does the noble Viscount accept that introducing 1999 as the final date in debates on the Environment Bill derogates from the assurances that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, gave to this House on the passage of the Coal Bill?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, no; that is not so. My noble friend gave an assurance that I have repeated today: the Coal Authority will not rely on those exemptions which have existed in law for a long time, and it will seek the best environmental result obtainable from the funds available to it.

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