Opencast mine bill for taxpayers sparks inquiry

The cost to the public purse of large swathes of Scotland’s countryside being left “scarred” by abandoned opencast coal mines is to be probed by the country’s spending watchdog.
Audit Scotland is to investigate the problem of abandoned opencast coal mines across Scotland. Picture: TSPLAudit Scotland is to investigate the problem of abandoned opencast coal mines across Scotland. Picture: TSPL
Audit Scotland is to investigate the problem of abandoned opencast coal mines across Scotland. Picture: TSPL

The practice has been dubbed a “national scandal” by some and it is now feared hundreds of millions of pounds will be needed nationwide to restore dozens of mines from which developers have walked away.

Public spending watchdog Audit Scotland yesterday revealed investigations will be carried out to establish the full extent of the problem and what went wrong.

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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.

The Auditor General’s intervention comes just days after planning permission was granted for a ten million tonne opencast coal mine at Cauldhall in Midlothian, in the face of local concerns and climate impacts.

Patrick Harvie, Green MSP for Glasgow and co-convener of the Scottish Greens, said: “The failure of opencast mine restoration is nothing short of a national scandal and I hope we see auditors get to the bottom of what went wrong and what a successful financial model might look like.

“We know that taxpayers and local communities are being left to pay big-time for the mess of a collapsing industry, and the last thing we should be doing in Scotland is giving green lights to more of the same. How can we trust any fresh promises that are made on environmental maintenance and restoration?”

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 million and £133m to restore the 33 opencast mines the liquidators plan to abandon.

A letter from Auditor General Caroline Gardner to Mr Harvie states that the practice has been recognised as a “substantial issue”. She adds: “We have asked auditors to undertake some initial fact-finding on the extent of potential issues for the public sector and how these are currently being accounted for and built into financial plans.

“The initial fact-finding will influence our decision about any further audit work required.”

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It could now feature as part of next year’s annual audit of individual councils or as part of a national performance audit.

The Scottish Government set out plans for new regulations earlier this year to ensure sites are “appropriately restored”, before firms are allowed to walk away. It came after calls from opposition politicians for a public inquiry into the restoration costs of opencast mines.

Malcolm Spaven, chairman of the Scottish Opencast Communities Alliance, said he hoped the Audit Scotland investigations will lead to a full inquiry.

He said: “We need action now, because local planning authorities like Midlothian are still giving the go-ahead to new opencast mines even when no-one knows how they’re going to be restored or where the money will come from.

“The Scottish Government needs to take a lead and square their energy policy – which says there will be no more coal-fired electricity after 2020 – with their opencast mining policy, which supports digging it all out as fast as possible.”