SCOTLAND’S wildlife and climate change targets are under growing threat from the coal industry’s failure to meet promises on restoring opencast mines, environmentalists have warned.
RSPB Scotland said mining firms were jeopardising the future of key species such as hen harriers by failing to restore the peatland sites which provide vital habitats and also act as a natural carbon store, which helps to offset emissions.
The warning came as Friends of the Earth Scotland branded the SNP’s new Scottish Mines Restoration Trust (SMRT) “an admission of failure” to fulfil past agreements with communities.
Community and environmental groups are concerned that mining companies like Scottish Coal, whose recent collapse sparked the creation of the SMRT, will be allowed to renege on restoration promises.
Aedan Smith, RSPB Scotland’s head of planning, told The Scotsman: “We have worked really closely with the coal industry over the past ten years on the location and restoration of coal mines. Any threat of that restoration not happening is a real concern. Some of these sites are located near wildlife areas, including some that are protected by European law.
“We are particularly concerned about peatland, which a lot of opencast mines are located under. It provides habitat for key species, including the hen harrier. You also get a bit of a double whammy if you don’t restore it, because you also lose the carbon store peat provides, which plays a role in tackling emissions.
“We’ve been trying to find out from Scottish Coal how they are going to manage this. They are obviously in a precarious position financially. What sort of confidence can we have that we’re going to see individual sites operated responsibly?”
Friends of the Earth Scotland echoed those fears. Its director, Dr Richard Dixon, said: “What it might end up with is KPMG [administrators for Scottish Coal] being able to walk away from all environmental obligations for any sites they cannot sell on.
“In one sense, setting up a restoration trust is very valuable, but in another it’s an admission of failure. It’s saying, ‘Actually, we can’t do what was promised’.
“We need some pretty strong indication that the SMRT is going to restore the sites to the condition these communities were promised they would be.”
Scottish Coal has been criticised for failing to fully restore nearly a dozen mines that experts believe are now liabilities, because the cost of restoring them is greater than their value.
It is understood the energy and waste group Hargreaves is the frontrunner to buy the six operational Scottish Coal mines in East Ayrshire, Fife and South Lanarkshire, leaving the remaining 11 sites unclaimed.
Liquidator KPMG said its priority remained selling Scottish Coal’s assets, but a spokesman said it was still “discussing options” on restoration with government and council officials.