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Column 182Thomason, Roy
Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)
Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Thornton, Sir Malcolm
Townend, John (Bridlington)
Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th)
Twinn, Dr Ian
Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Wheeler, Rt Hon Sir John
Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)
Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. Sydney Chapman and
Mr. Timothy Wood.
Question accordingly negatived .
.--(1) Conditions included in any licence under Part II of this Act shall include a requirement on the holder of the licence to prevent discharges of minewater from the mine at any time unless authorised by the National Rivers Authority.
(2) The duty under subsection (1) above shall include a duty to continue pumping operations until the licence is transferred to another person or the Authority assumes responsibility for pumping. (3) The Authority shall not permit the holder of a licence under Part II of this Act to allow minewater to be discharged unless authorised by the National Rivers Authority.
(4) In an emergency, any person authorised by the Authority may enter a coal mine or pumping station operated by a holder of a licence under Part II of this Act to ensure that pumping is continued in pursuance of the Authority's duty under subsection (3) of this section.'.-- [Mr. Bell.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
(dd) monitoring, controlling and preventing pollution arising from present and former coalmining activity, including that caused by polluted minewater, in a manner that ensures the protection of the environment ; and'.
No. 14, in clause 2, page 2, line 33, after subsidence', insert or minewater'.
No. 55, in clause 3, page 4, line 17, at end add
(9) It shall be the duty of the Authority, in carrying out its functions under this Act, to use its best endeavours to protect the water environment.
(10) In this section "water environment" means water quality, and land drainage and flood defence systems where that water and those systems are affected by coalmines operated by any person licensed under Part II of this Act, or are affected by abandoned coalmines.'. No. 7, in clause 53, page 48, line 41, at end add
(5A) Section 89(3) of the Water Resources Act 1991 shall be amended by inserting after the word "mine" the words "other than an abandoned coal- mine.".'.
No. 15, in schedule 11, page 155, line 26, at end insert : 1991 c. 57
Column 183Madam Deputy Speaker, that mine water is not a subject of great attraction or of great interest, but it is a matter of major concern, not only throughout the former Durham coalfield, but throughout the country where there have been mine workings in the past. In my area of Durham today, The Northern Echo , our local newspaper, devoted much of its front page to the problems that will, and can, arise from mine water.
The new clause deals with licences and the need to pump the mine water out of the ground. That subject is not limited to the debate tonight. The issue was first mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), whom I am very glad to see in his place. He raised the issue in an Adjournment debate. He spoke of water table rebounds, of iron pyrites, of adits--a horizontal or near-horizontal tunnel from the surface into a mine for entry, drainage or exploration.
We also had a ten-minute rule Bill from my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell), who is also in his place tonight. In a short and eloquent speech, he described the effects of pollution from abandoned mines. He gave a graphic description of what can happen with such pollution, when he described the red stain sediment from dissolved iron salts. He also described the effects on the overall ecosystem of such pollution. My hon. Friend rendered us a service and widened the debate by giving examples from south Wales of the effects of pollution of rivers from abandoned pits.
One of the essences of the debate tonight has arisen already from that Adjournment debate and that ten-minute rule Bill is the question, who will take ultimate responsibility for mine water pollution ? Where does the buck stop ? We have asked in Committee, on the Floor of the House, in meetings with Ministers in the Department of the Environment and with Ministers in the Department of Trade and Industry : who will eventually take responsibility for that mine water ?
Mr. Simon Hughes : It is even more important, because one would have thought that, in the light of Wheal Jane--which my Cornish colleagues became very exercised about--the issue would have been resolved. It was not resolved adequately then. The historic lesson has not been learnt and the issue still has not been expressly tackled by the Government.
Mr. Bell : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for referring us to Wheal Jane, and I think that he will speak later. If my memory serves me right, the problem of Wheal Jane was the problem of a tin mine. There was a discharge of red-brick-coloured metal-laden waters. That was of great concern, obviously, to all Government Departments as well as local citizens. One of the aspects of Wheal Jane was that we realised that we were falling foul of EC directive 80/68 on groundwater protection. One would have thought, as a result of all that anxiety, that the Government would have responded more strongly.
In fact, we realised that there was probably a legislative loophole on the subject of mine water. Section 85 of the Water Resources Act 1991 provides for prosecution of river polluters and for recovery from a polluter of the costs of cleaning. There was one exemption--an important and significant exemption, to which the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) can refer, because she has tabled an amendment on the same subject. Abandoned mines were exempted from the 1991 Act.
Column 184The Royal Commission on environmental pollution in 1992 recommended legislative action to cover the fact that no one would be responsible for polluted water from abandoned workings. We have gone through the Bill in Committee, and various statements have been made by Ministers, yet we are still here, confronted by the situation that, when pumps are switched off in a pit, the natural forces that make that water rise will come into play and will be allowed to operate.
A sombre picture has been painted of what will happen when the pumps are finally turned off in what we can now describe as the "old Durham coalfield". That coalfield once produced 35 million tonnes of coal every year, and now it does not produce coal through a nationalised industry.
What will happen when those pumps are turned off ? We know as a matter of fact that British Coal currently pays about £6 million a year to pump the coalfield, as it is. It certainly spends £1 million on pumping 10 disused pits in the coalfield. If the pumping stations at Vinovium, Page Bank and Ushaw Moor were to close, the consequences might be catastrophic for Durham.
It is not for a Member of Parliament to use excessive language on the Floor of the House and to communicate fears to a population, but nevertheless the consequences will be extremely grave in locations along the Wear valley, south-west of Durham, in the vicinity of Bishop Auckland--I am glad to see my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip, the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) in his place--and in Durham city. Members of Parliament are here from the Durham coalfield, and my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North- West (Ms Armstrong) is here, among others.
My hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Cummings), who played such a strong role in Committee and made some strong statements, said that there could be an "orange collar" around a world heritage site. He meant the Norman cathedral at Durham and the peninsula around the city.
In addition to the expressions of Members of Parliament, statements have been made by experts in the field. Dr. Paul Younger of Newcastle university has said that Durham could experience
"potentially the biggest single drainage of acid from mines we have seen . . . 300 years of stored up pollution could be coming to the surface."
It has been said--we have heard it many a time--that coal mining in Durham goes back about 400 years. There is a honeycomb of former mines under the ground there. We all learned from pit village to pit village when we were young the background, the history and the traditions. We all know the consequences of water in a pit. We are discussing tonight nothing less than a Domesday scenario, which could affect the former Durham coalfield and the people who live there. There has been some movement in relation to British Coal and the National Rivers Authority. There has been a slight movement to the effect that British Coal
Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) : My hon. Friend has clearly and vividly described to us the problems of the Durham coalfield. May I draw to his attention the fact that we are very worried that the south Wales coalfield will manifest the same problems ? The River Rhymney showed similar problems when the pumps stopped at the Britannia colliery, and I fear that, with the closure of Taff Merthyr, we could be facing similar
Column 185problems on the River Taff. When my hon. Friend speaks for Durham, he speaks for the whole of the south Wales coalfield, too.
Mr. Bell : I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because I tried to preface my remarks by saying that this was a national problem wherever coal had been mined in the country. That included south Wales. It certainly covers Durham and Northumberland. My hon. Friends the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson) and for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) are in their places.
We are conscious that what we are debating tonight is not only Durham, but any part of the country where there have been coal mines, and, as the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) reminded me, tin mines in the south-west of the country. So we are aware that the context is far greater than the narrow issue confronts us in the Bill. The consequences are greater than those that affect the Durham coalfield.
The only result of the pressure and the publicity and the anxieties of our people has been an agreement by British Coal to give the National Rivers Authority two weeks' notice before it switches off pumps at any of its pits. That is not a satisfactory response to the important matters that have been brought to the Government's attention.
I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) in his place. Unfortunately, he had an accident in heavy snow on the first day of the Committee and could not take part in its further proceedings. Nevertheless, when he was there he said that the two-week period of grace was simply a "short-term palliative". I entirely agree with him.
The Minister gave his view on the matter in Committee. He said that the Coal Authority will be responsible for water pollution from abandoned mines except to the extent that any part of the responsibility may be passed to the private sector through leases. That is not an adequate response for people who live in those areas or those who seek to protect the environment.
The new clause says that it shall be a condition of a licence that there be
"a requirement on the holder of the licence to prevent discharges of minewater from the mine at any time unless authorised by the National Rivers Authority"
and that there shall be included
"a duty to continue pumping operations until the licence is transferred to another person or the Authority assumes responsibility for pumping."
That seems to meet the point which my hon. Friend the Member for Gower made in his 10-minute Bill. What will happen if the Coal Authority grants a licence to a company to work a mine and the company eventually abandons the mine ? Who will be responsible for pumping the water ? Shall we not be back in the same position if British Coal, the Coal Authority and everybody else wash their hands of the responsibility ? It will simply become an abandoned mine with no one responsible for the mine water pollution.
A strong delegation, particularly from Durham county council, has come to the House today to brief Members of this House and the House of Lords from all parties about the risks in Durham if no positive steps are taken to maintain pumping.
Column 186Under the Bill, we have discussed licensing of mining safety, pension rights, concessionary fuel, coal bed methane, exploitation and subsidence, but we cannot discuss mine water pollution or pumping because that subject is not in the Bill. In Committee, we tried to put it on the same footing as subsidence, which is why we have moved another amendment to cover mine water pollution.
We do not accept that clause 3(7), which deals with the Coal Authority's duties, sufficiently covers mine water pollution. My hon. Friends the Members for Neath (Mr. Hain) and for Easington explained people's anxieties about that matter in different parts of the country. In Committee, the Government sought to shuffle their responsibility on to the Coal Authority and the National Rivers Authority without being specific. They will simply set the National Rivers Authority and British Coal at each other's throats in the courts, trying to bring injunctions to avoid taking the necessary action.
The time has come for the Government to make a clear commitment by accepting new clause 3 and to recognise the serious dangers of water pollution where coal has been mined, such as in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire. Wherever coal has been mined, people will be affected. The running and shuffling must stop, as must the buck passing between the Department of the Environment and the Department of Trade and Industry. The Government must take the necessary action and accept the new clause. As there is all-party support for other amendments on this issue, we hope to carry the House with us, should it come to a vote.
Mrs. Peacock : Pollution from contaminated mine water occurs when water floods old mine workings and carries pollutants, notably iron and sulphur, to the surface via rivers and other water sources. The polluted mine water contaminates those sources, destroying wildlife and discolouring the water.
British Coal has always kept its working mines free of water by a network of pumping stations, which it may shut down when pits close. It now has an agreement to inform the National Rivers Authority before turning off any pumps. Like other mine operators, British Coal is exempted by the Water Resources Act 1991 from prosecution for knowingly permitting water pollution and has not yet been successfully prosecuted for causing pollution.
British Coal has no clear liability for pollution from mine water, although it has operated a "good neighbour" policy and maintained pumping. It is therefore not possible automatically to transfer liability to the Coal Authority, which must be specifically directed to take on responsibility for mine water pollution from former British Coal mines. The new industry will not be obliged to adopt British Coal's "good neighbour" policy or take up its existing agreement with the NRA.
I appreciate that the Department of the Environment is reviewing laws on water pollution, but there is no indication of when that will be completed or whether this issue will be addressed. The Bill should establish liability for the historical environmental legacy of coal mining. Once pollution has occurred, remedial action is costly and it may take years to reverse the damage.
It is important that we ensure, during the passage of the Bill, that we do not allow pollution of our water courses. We currently spend millions of pounds on cleaning up our
Column 187rivers, beaches and water courses. My hon. Friend the Minister will agree that we would not want to put that at risk by allowing a loophole in the Bill.
Ms Armstrong : The problem has already been outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell). It will affect any area where coal has been mined. I wish to speak specifically about how the problem affects my part of Durham.
My constituency is at the western edge of the Durham coalfield. Many of the thousands of old mine workings under the ground are not on maps because they operated centuries ago. Mines in that part of the county closed 20, 25 or 30 years ago, but British Coal has consistently pumped the water from the mine workings, so the water table has not changed. Throughout that period, the county has continued to attract Government grants and has worked with the Government to clean up the environment after the closure of mine workings.
Anyone who now visits Durham county finds a beautiful environment that is attractive to visitors but is also re-attracting much of the wildlife, flora and fauna that existed in the past. We have also cleaned up the rivers. I am told that, at the edge of the coalfields in my constituency there is good salmon and trout fishing because the river water is of good quality.
Apart from anything else, we should be incredibly negligent if we were to fail to guard the public money that has been invested in the area for the purpose of reclamation to provide an environment offering a high quality of life. This has taken work ; it has not just happened by accident. What is achieved by way of cleaning up the environment is the result of the commitment of local people working in partnership with the Government and with the European Community. The work that has been done in Durham is second to none, but there will be a threat--a real threat, not an imagined one--if pumping operations are not continued. British Coal has already shut down some pumps. On at least one occasion, it failed to give even the two weeks' notice that had been promised. Some of the problems caused by water pollution from old mines are already manifesting themselves in the western part of my county. The water table has risen, and some fields are now flooded. As one drives past, one notices the orange muck. The river and some streams on the western edge of the county are affected already. In addition, in my part of the county, there are problems of subsidence. The water authority and the rivers authority put this down to the closure of mines.
This is not an imagined problem, but one which we already have to deal with. With members and officers of Durham county council, I took part in a delegation to the Minister following the publication of the Bill. We sought an assurance that the hon. Gentleman understood the problem and an undertaking that, under the Bill, appropriate measures would be taken to deal with it. I am sorry to say that such measures have not been taken. The assurances that have been given are simply not strong enough to make us confident that the new authority will accept responsibility.
I understand that the Minister does not want to write an undertaking into the terms of the Bill. That reluctance will give rise to real problems. Recent court judgments make it very clear that assurances given in Parliament by Ministers
Column 188are not sufficient in court. I cite a case in a totally different realm--the terms of the contracts of lecturers in colleges of further and higher education. The assurances given by Ministers during the debates on employment legislation were dismissed by the judge, who said that he was guided not by things said in Parliament but by his understanding and interpretation of the law. That is the problem. Outside experts who have looked into this matter say that assurances given in the House and in Committee by Ministers are simply not sufficient. Their judgment is that, in the event of problems arising and being taken to court, there is nothing in the Bill to make the new Coal Authority responsible in such a way that they could be tackled. I am sure that no hon. Member wants such a situation to arise. No doubt the Minister does not want to see problems that no one is able to tackle. If he wants the new authority to have this capacity, he will have to accept our proposed changes or write in his own.
If changes are not made, much of Ministers' push for privatisation will run into difficulty. It is my view that many private operators would be very cautious about starting business in Durham. People will not have to wait five, 10 or 15 years before problems occur. As I have said, what is going to happen is already visible. We know already the potential extent of the problem and what it may mean. People who are thinking of investing in the area will need to be assured that the Government will cover them. We are asking for assurances on the face of the Bill. We are asking for a commitment to the provision of resources to tackle any problems that arise. We want to ensure that, whatever happens, the quality of life and the environment of future generations, as well as of those of us who will be around for another few years, will not be destroyed. Many of my hon. Friends have personal experience of, for example, the gases and poisons in mine workings. These will accumulate in water and may become explosive when they reach the surface. In saying that, I am not being fanciful : people who know about these things make the same point.
It is critical that this matter be tackled seriously in the context of the legislation that we are considering. Regardless of the Government's ideological wishes, we cannot afford to have our environment threatened in the way that the Bill, as drafted, threatens it. In saying that, I refer not just to Durham but to other coalfield areas. The adjoining constituencies of Durham, North-West and Bishop Auckland are the first to face the problem. We are beginning to see examples of what the rest of the county and the other coalfields in Britain will encounter. I therefore urge the Minister to realise that, in respect of this matter, he cannot simply give assurances, hoping that they will be observed in the future. The evidence is that courts are not being bound by such assurances. We need actual words in the legislation. I hope that the Minister will reconsider what he said in Committee and indicate that he is prepared to write into the Bill a provision to the effect that any problems arising will very firmly be the responsibility of the new Coal Authority.