A summons alleging that British Coal has broken the law by switching off pumps at a redundant colliery near the river Rhymney in South Wales will be served this week by the Anglers' Co-operative Association.
The case, to be heard later this year, will decide if British Coal can continue to be protected by a loophole in the law governing water polluters. If British Coal loses, it will face a fine of up to pounds 20,000 if magistrates hear the case, or an unlimited penalty if it goes to a crown court. But the biggest cost would be having to pump water from redundant pits.
This would cost millions of pounds a year and, as some pit closures are certain whatever the Government decides about the industry's future, the bill will increase.
The Rhymney has suffered from ferric oxide pollution on a stretch used for trout fishing near Caerphilly, Mid-Glamorgan. This is alleged to have seeped into the river from the Britannia colliery which was closed in 1990.
Normally, polluters can be prosecuted, but under the Water Resources Act of 1991, it has to be proved that a defendant caused or knowingly permitted pollution to get into a river. Until now, switching off the pumps at a disused pit has not constituted this.
But the Anglers' Co-operative Association, formed in 1948 to fight pollution on behalf of angling clubs, believes that this can be challenged successfully. The association has only lost one court case in its history. Simon Jackson, solicitor for the association, said: 'This is a test case. What we are saying is that they deliberately turned off the pumps and as a result they have caused this discharge.'
If the prosecution is successful, the way would be open for the National Rivers Authority, which is responsible for prosecuting polluters, to force British Coal to pump out dozens of pits.
Dr Jan Pentreath, NRA chief scientist, said: 'It is not right in this day and age that somebody actually operating a mine can, when he is finished, simply switch off the pumps, pack up and go home and leave behind an environmental mess.'
The NRA is researching the problem and will present its findings to the Department of the Environment later this year. It is particularly concerned about the situation in South Yorkshire and the north-east of England.
It estimates that if the last of the Durham coastal collieries are closed, then mine water contaminated with iron and other minerals could pollute the river Wear.
No comment was available from British Coal yesterday. But Neil Clarke, its chairman, has pledged to work closely with the NRA, while rejecting fears that ending pumping would cause pollution.Reuse content