MAC: Mines and Communities

Mine owners reported to police over planning breach

Published by MAC on 2008-09-16
Source: Sunday Times (Scotland)

A major opencast coal mining company has been reported to the police for allegedly breaching planning conditions and damaging an internationally important peat bog in Ayrshire.

ATH Resources has been accused of failing to prevent a "bog burst" during an expansion of its Grievehill mine near New Cumnock. The "bog burst" saw an area of peatland, under legal protection because of the wildlife it supports, collapse into the mine.

The coal industry remains one of Scotland's biggest polluters, according to a new report from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa). More than 400 kilometres of river and 4800 square kilometres of groundwater are still being contaminated with metals from old mines.

Iron, cadmium, copper and zinc leak from the workings, in some cases literally turning rivers red. "Abandoned mines are one of the most significant pollution threats in Britain," warns the report.

The Grievehill mine incident has alarmed environmental and community groups, who blamed the government's conservation agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), for allowing the mine to be expanded. SNH said it was "very disappointed" at the company's behaviour.

The expansion of opencast mining at Grievehill was given the go-ahead last year after SNH withdrew its objections. A series of strict conditions were imposed on ATH Resources to allow the development to proceed. These included the construction of a clay barrier around the peat to keep it safe, and the appointment of an ecological clerk of works.

Neither of these measures were allegedly taken, however, before the peat collapse at the southern boundary of the mine. As a result, both SNH and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in Scotland have referred the matter to the police. "ATH has not complied with vital conditions to protect this important peatland and we are very concerned that in the rush to begin mining, shortcuts have been taken," said RSPB Scotland's head of planning, Aedan Smith.

He accused SNH of not taking the threat of damage from the development seriously enough. "SNH's job is to look after our natural heritage yet they appear to have compromised the conservation of an internationally important site by seeking to be accommodating to all," he said.

Smith called on SNH, along with the planning authority, East Ayrshire Council, to ensure that ATH repaired the damage it had done at Grievehill.

SNH argued that it tried to work "constructively" with developers to find a balance between economic and environmental objectives. It had withdrawn its objection to the Grievehill expansion because substantial promises had been made to prevent damage to the peatland.

"We're very disappointed to find out that much of this was never put in place by the developer," said SNH's director of operations in the south, Roddy Fairley. "Developers have to recognise that they must comply with conditions attached to planning consent in order that economic growth can be sustainable."

But Greta Roberts, from the Mining and Environment Group Ayrshire (Mega), criticised SNH for a lack of precaution. Her group has lodged a formal complaint with the European Commission. She said: "The bog burst was just an accident waiting to happen where operators do not adhere to planning conditions."

ATH Resources blamed "geo-technical issues" for the peat slide. "ATH is working closely with all relevant stakeholders to ensure that the design and operation of our activities continue to be consistent with best environmental practice and expert advice," said operations director, Alistair Black.

ATH Resources operates four other mines in Ayrshire, Fife and Dumfries and Galloway. It is currently the third-largest producer of coal in the UK.

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