Scotland's last deep coal mine closes after flooding

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The Independent Online

Scotland's last deep coal mine was put into liquidation yesterday with the possible loss of more than 500 jobs.

Centuries of mining tradition came to an end when 77m litres (17m gallons) of water flooded the Longannet pit in Fife last Saturday after a dam separating old workings from new seams under the river Forth collapsed. If the breach had occurred 24 hours earlier, hundreds of miners would have drowned. The water poured into the five-mile mineshafts 1,970ft (600m) below ground in less than 10 minutes.

Despite attempts by mining engineers to assess the damage and a possible rescue of the pit, it was decided that to drain the mine and rebuild the shafts would cost tens of millions of pounds and there would still be no guarantee that it would not happen again.

Yesterday the directors of Longannet's operators, Mining (Scotland) – a subsidiary of Scottish Coal – told the Energy minister, Brian Wilson, that the mine, which has suffered a catalogue of geological and financial problems in recent years, would have to close. The decision was made despite estimates that there are 40m tons of coal still to be excavated from beneath and to the west of the river Forth.

Announcing the decision at Scottish Coal's headquarters in Alloa, the company chairman, Professor Ross Harper, said the final decision to close was made following two reports on the likelihood of the flood recurring.

The closure of the pit, which has received more than £40m in government grants, is a severe blow to the economy of west Fife. Hundreds of jobs at companies connected with the industry are in danger.

Since the 11th century, Fife has been at the centre of Scotland's rich coal mining heritage. Numerous towns and villages were built on the proceeds of the black diamonds that helped to fuel the expansion of the industrial revolution and the British empire. By the 1880s, there were more than 500 pits throughout Scotland.

Production reached its peak in 1913 when the industry north of the border carved out 41m tons of coal.

Only 40 years ago, the Scottish coal industry still employed 85,500 miners at 166 collieries across the country, 35 of them in Fife alone. But by the early 1970s, pit after pit had been forced to close until the miner's strike of 1984 changed the industry for good and forced a period of mass redundancies.

Longannet survived primarily because it was a modern colliery employing a new generation of mining technology and expertise. The mine supplied two million tons a year to a nearby power station, which relied on the low sulphur content of the coal to meet stringent emissions regulations.

Yesterday, miners at the pit, who have been unable to work since the flood, were resigned to the fact that their jobs were now gone. The likelihood of anyone willing to invest in Longannet appeared a forlorn hope. "The closure won't just hit the miners but also their families, then the communities, the shops, and the pubs," said Roger Lambie, 38, who is the fifth generation of his family to work in the coal industry.

"If I was to go out into the big bad world then I would need further education," said Mr Lambie, who has three children, and is from Kincardine, central Scotland. He has been in the industry for 22 years.

"I've got a lot of relevant qualifications but they're all relevant to mining," he said. "The sad thing is that there is still a lot of good coal down there. I firmly believe the mine should stay open. With the right attitude it can be a viable operating unit again."

For his colleague Alex Flannagan, 31, from Alloa, who has worked at Longannet since he left school, the future also appeared bleak.

"I don't know what the job alternatives are, stacking shelves in a supermarket maybe," he said. "They keep building supermarkets round here but there will be no one left to shop in them.

"This closure will have a bad effect on Alloa, Dunfermline and all areas around here, not just the pit."

Mr Wilson, the Energy minister, described the news as "bitterly disappointing".

"There may be others who will take a different view about the possibility of re-opening it, though at present there are no grounds for optimism on that account," he said following yesterday morning's meeting.

Professor Harper said he hoped Scottish Coal (Deep Mine) Company's sister company, Scottish Coal Company, would be able to absorb any lost jobs over the coming months "despite the differing skills".