One-hundred million tonnes of colliery waste were tipped over the cliffs on to the beaches below from the six mines of the East Durham coalfield. Currents spread the material along the coast, smothering the sand in black deposits several metres deep. The waste extended the beaches 100 yards or more out to sea. For nine miles the inshore waters are stained black and the foam in breaking waves is grey. All life on the sea-bed has been wiped out.
Until two years ago, a giant conveyor belt at the Easington pit carried waste a short distance from the cliffs while bulldozers spread it over the beach. It resembled an industrial scene from behind the Iron Curtain before communism's collapse.
For decades a succession of ministers, councillors and expert bodies said it was a shame and a disgrace. But nothing was done to end the tipping because British Coal claimed it could not identify or afford any alternative. The Government declined to fund any solution.
Tipping ceased with the demise of the East Durham coal industry, and nature has now begun its own clean-up. Easington was the last of the pits to shut, in 1993, and its infamous conveyor has been demolished. The sea is eroding the thick layer of sticky, clay-like coal waste and working its way back towards the limestone cliffs.
Durham County Council and seven other local and national bodies want to speed up the restoration, bring wildflowers back to the clifftops and make the vandalised coast a place that hundreds of thousands of people visit every year. The beaches, and the steep-sided little valleys which run down to them, are now used for fly-tipping and dumping stolen cars.
The partners have applied to the Millennium Commission for pounds 5.3m of lottery money. Their proposals, costing a total of pounds 13m, have made it on to the commission's shortlist and a decision is expected later this month.
The most expensive item is the removal of two waste tips on the beaches, using bulldozers and drag-lines. If they are left there, the returning sea will reach them in a few years, causing further damaging pollution. The next largest expense is the building of six new railway stations on the under-used coastal line which connects Tyneside and Teesside. Today there is only one halt and it is difficult to get to much of the coast by car. But people would be able to walk straight down to the beach or on to the clifftops from the new stations, or hire bicycles to ride on the planned network of cycle paths.
Development is to be kept to an absolute minimum. ``There will be no bungalows, no funfairs and nothing but the sun, the wind and the unpredictable North Sea,'' says the botanist David Bellamy, a keen supporter.Reuse content