Letter: The mines: effects of closure on the economy, the environment and individual lives

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The Independent Online
Sir: The decision to close 31 pits is said to have been arrived at on the basis of an (implicit or explicit) evaluation of costs and benefits; it was 'economically unavoidable'. The scope of the exercise is daunting, extending from the estimation of future environmental technologies to the evaluation of the costs, for individuals, of the prospect of being unemployed for the rest of their lives. Yet one important environmental cost has perhaps been overlooked.

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, in its 1992 report on Freshwater Quality, described the environmental consequences of flooding from closed or abandoned mines as 'dramatic'. 'Clear streams turn ochreous, fish die, and the river bed becomes coated with insoluble iron salts,' the commission wrote; one outbreak from the Dalquharran mine in 1979 resulted in 'the most serious pollution incident recorded up to then in Scotland', in which 'within 24 hours all fish in the 16km stretch of river downstream to the coast at Girvan were killed', and even the ship owners in Girvan harbour complained that 'the water was corrosive to ships' hulls'.

The commission recommended, 'in view of the serious water pollution threat posed by abandoned mines', that all consents for operational mines should be reviewed, and conditions imposed 'requiring action to be taken in the event of closure to safeguard water from pollution'.

It also described the absence of legal powers in relation to abandoned mines as 'a serious gap in the legislation' which the government should consider remedying.

These recommendations have not yet been the subject of a government response, and the environmental costs of the closures now proposed may lie far in the future; after heavy rains in Yorkshire, for example, or if the concrete covering of Welsh mines begins to deteriorate. But they are costs that have to be evaluated - before, and not after, 'the event of closure'.

Yours sincerely,


King's College, Cambridge

18 October