Ministers get tough over opencast mine sites

Anger has been accompanied by calls for a public inquiry into mining clean-ups. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Anger has been accompanied by calls for a public inquiry into mining clean-ups. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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THE coal industry is facing a crackdown by the Scottish Government amid growing anger over large swathes of countryside left “scarred” by abandoned opencast mines.

Firms which go bust are walking away from areas which have been affected, prompting energy minister Fergus Ewing to unveil plans for new regulations to ensure sites are “appropriately restored”.

The move follows a controversial court decision earlier this year which gave defunct Scottish Coal’s liquidators the right to effectively abandon clean-up operations on opencast mines.

A consultation on the new regulations was launched by the SNP government as MSPs prepare to debate the issue today at Holyrood.

Mr Ewing co-chairs the Scottish Open Cast Mining Taskforce which was set up earlier this year in the wake of the closure of Scottish Coal.

But he warned that compliance monitoring, enforcement and financial assurance systems are not working effectively enough at each site.

“More effective regulation is the principal way of improving confidence in the sector and it will keep onside the insurers and banks that underwrite risks on opencast mining,” Mr Ewing said.

“Asking the right questions about policy and practice, about site surveys and restoration guarantees will pave a way so that future sites are run to the best of standards and appropriately 

Scottish Coal plunged into liquidation with the loss of 600 jobs in April.

In July, judges at the Court of Session agreed that the firm could ignore statutory obligations to restrict dust and water pollution and to restore the land afterwards, prompting fury among campaigners.

East Ayrshire Council is facing a bill of between £62 and133 million to restore the 33 opencast mines the liquidators plan to abandon.

The consultation follows repeated calls from opposition politicians for a public inquiry into the restoration costs of opencast mines. Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “Our environment and our economy have been scarred by the Scottish Government’s failures on open-cast mining. We need assurances that lessons have been learnt.

“We need confidence that these failings will not be repeated. The unrestored mines have left local communities environmentally bankrupt.

“Taxpayers may also face the unacceptable burden of meeting the multi-million-pound hole in restoration costs.

“After failing to meet our climate change targets for two successive years, I’m concerned the SNP is retreating from its previously strong stance on the environment.”

Patrick Harvie co-leader of the Green Party, said: “Decades of opencast coalmining has caused serious environmental damage. Former and current mining communities are being locked out of the debate on this crisis. They face being abandoned by an industry failing to honour its moral and legal obligations.

“Scotland’s future is clearly in renewables, so it is worrying that ministers still think coal has a role to play. We cannot allow corporate interests to walk away, and we must not throw public funds at a problem our communities did not create.”