Islanders fear super-quarry's threat to coastline

A poll on Harris is likely to reveal a growing gulf between supporters of a controversial development plan and defenders of traditional livelihoods in the Hebrides. John Arlidge reports

Islanders on Harris will today give their verdict on a proposal to sink Britain's largest quarry into a 1,500ft mountain, on one of the most scenic coastlines in the Hebrides.

About 1,000 people have been balloted in a referendum over plans to remove 600 million tons of rock from Roineabhal mountain, which stands on the southern tip of Harris, looking out over the Cuillin hills on Skye. The results of the poll will be published this afternoon.

The referendum, conducted by the Electoral Reform Society, has been organised by the local people, who are known as Hearrachs. They believe the pounds 50m quarry will pollute fishing grounds and create few jobs for the depressed local economy.

In an earlier poll in 1993, islanders voted 2-1 in favour of the development by the Surrey-based mining group Redland Aggregates. Although the quarry would destroy a peak which local Gaelic-speakers call "an aite boidheach" - "the beautiful place" - many welcomed the initiative; the area's population has more than halved in the last 70 years, as islanders move to the mainland for work. Now the mood has changed. A public inquiry into Redland's proposals on the neighbouring island of Lewis has heard evidence that casts doubt on the company's claims that the quarry will create wealth. Crofters and fishermen suspect that they would be losers.

When the plans for a super-quarry were unveiled in 1991, Redland officials promised that about 70 jobs would be created for Hearrachs. But the inquiry heard evidence that the number could be as low as 25.

Company officials also insisted that strict limits would be imposed on dust and noise emissions, while marine scientists produced evidence that ballast water discharges from rock-carrying barges would not pollute local fishing grounds.

But Link Quarry, the umbrella organisation for 26 environmental groups that oppose the development, argued that the quarry would destroy unique wildlife habitats on land and sea in a region designated a National Scenic Area.

Link Quarry also believes that the scheme would threaten fish stocks between Harris and Skye and harm the island's fledgling tourist industry.

The evidence before the inquiry team has swayed many islanders who are angry that four years after Redland published its plans, its directors have ignored requests to set up an annual pounds 100,000 community trust fund. John MacAulay, chairman of the Quarry Benefits Group, a committee of crofters and fishermen set up to help secure the best deal from Redland for the community, said: "Before the hearings started, I thought the scales were tipped in favour of development. Now I think they are tipped against.

"The inquiry has been an education. I, like many others, had not really appreciated the full extent of what was being proposed. If it goes ahead, many fishermen will get jobs at the quarry. But what will we be left with at the end? The fishermen will have lost the skills that have sustained Harris for generations and we will have a giant hole in our coastline. That can't be right."

Western Isles Council remains behind the project. Angus Graham, the vice- convener, insists that the quarry will benefit the local economy.

"Here on Harris we have an awful lot of rock. What we lack are jobs. Of course, the Roineabhal area will be altered beyond recognition, but that is a price worth paying".

Mr Graham conceded that it would be "awkward" if people on Harris opposed the council's policy. But, he said: "It would be silly to change our minds purely on the basis of one referendum which provides a snapshot of public opinion."

The final decision, however, does not lie with the islanders or with the council but with Ian Lang, the Secretary of State for Scotland. The pounds 2m public inquiry will end next month, after which the chairman will submit a report to Mr Lang with a series of recommendations. He is expected to announce his decision next spring. If he gives the go-ahead, three more planned super-quarries are likely to be built by the year 2000. Another would be built on Harris, one on the north coast of Scotland and the third in Shetland.

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