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12/05/2014

Opencast mines leave black holes in Scotland

Opencast mine

Shale gas might be the “new fossil fuel about town”, but have we figured out how to tame the old dog yet? Forty per cent of the UK’s energy still comes from coal – much from opencast mines. The liquidation of two opencast operators in Scotland last year exposed a regulatory shortfall that has implications for fracking.

Alexa MorrisonWith the collapse of Scottish Coal and ATH Resources it fast became apparent that there would be difficulties restoring the sites, writes Alexa Morrison (left). Scottish planning practice is that opencast operators must provide a financial bond to ensure that restoration happens should they get into financial trouble. This is to avoid industrial dereliction and ensure that the “polluter pays”.
 
Scandalously, it emerged that the bonds were in many cases almost worthless; the funding shortfall across Scotland stands at £200 million. In East Ayrshire alone restoration could cost £160 million, with less than £30 million available from bonds. Two mines are protected under the EC Habitats and Birds Directives, so failure to restore them could breach EC law, putting the UK and Scottish governments at risk of heavy fines.
 

"The UK government would be wise to ensure that lessons learned from opencast are applied to other industries"

 
The liquidator KPMG tried to disclaim the environmental liabilities of the companies in court, abandon polluted sites and ensure that remaining funds would go to creditors rather than a clean-up. But the courts ruled that environmental obligations cannot just be abandoned when a company gets into deep water.
 
Sadly, the ruling did little for restoration as funds were only available for short-term maintenance. It’s hard to comprehend the scale and impact of an opencast coalmine until you stand on the edge of one. But it can be possible to restore sites to a reasonable environmental quality.
 
Firmer environmental controls are needed. There is no place for light-touch regulation of high-impact industrial development. And how should we approach regulation of a polluting industry that is in decline as we move towards a low-carbon economy? A Scottish government consultation suggests that change is afoot.
 
We recommend taking a precautionary approach to consenting damaging development in areas that are impossible to restore effectively. We also question reliance on commercial bonds to secure restoration. Surely a standardised restoration funding mechanism is needed to ensure that the industry pays without recourse to public money? The UK government would be wise to apply lessons from opencast to the roll-out of fracking. The last thing we need is to sleepwalk into another restoration financing crisis.
 
Alexa Morrison is conservation policy officer for RSPB Scotland.
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