Clause 87 - Control of water from coal mines

Water Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:45 am on 21 October 2003.

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Photo of Ms Candy Atherton Ms Candy Atherton Labour, Falmouth and Camborne 9:45, 21 October 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 162, in

clause 87, page 102, line 3, at end insert—

'4D Powers of the Authority with respect to any abandoned mine

All the statutory powers conferred on the Authority in respect of coal mine water discharge may at the discretion of the Authority be exercised in respect of any water discharge from any abandoned mine other than a coal mine on payment to the Authority of such fee and subject to such conditions (if any) as the Authority may consider appropriate.'.

I represent a mining area with a heritage of mining. However, we often overlook the fact that not all mines are coal mines. As in coal mining areas, we are faced with a costly legacy as the mines fall into disuse and decay. The amendment seeks to provide the Coal Authority with a permissive power to deal with non-coal mines so that areas such as mine are not overlooked. The problem of pollution from non-coal mines can be serious. In 1992 there was a serious case of pollution at Wheal Jane in Cornwall. The Environment Agency stepped in on that occasion and has worked with the Coal Authority to tackle the problem.

However, there is a distinction to be made between the Agency's role as regulator and the need for remedial action. There is a need for a more concerted approach to tackle pollution from all mines. There are hundreds of small seepages from metal mines in this country that currently have no mechanism for clean-up. There are also problems identifying who is responsible for the pollution. This is where the Coal Authority can step in. It has a history of expertise and a wealth of skills at its disposal. Indeed, the authority has an impressive track record in the hitherto neglected area of environmental work.

Cleaning up pollution from non-coal mines is also a requirement of the water framework directive, so the amendment would help us to meet our requirements under that directive.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I am listening with interest and support to the hon. Lady. Will she clarify one point? Who will pick up the tab for dealing with the problems of abandoned mines?

Photo of Ms Candy Atherton Ms Candy Atherton Labour, Falmouth and Camborne

Where there is no dispute about the ownership of the land, the bill obviously would go to the owner of the land, the presumed polluter in the first place. I suspect that there would have to be some discussion among the various agencies, including local authorities, as to the final decision where the land is in dispute. That is partly the current position. The amendment is intended to be permissive and discretionary. However, it will give relevant authorities the means to tackle an important issue and to ensure that no areas such as mine are disadvantaged in comparison with the coalfields.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for tabling the amendment. She put it very well. I should like the Minister to explain why the Bill refers specifically to coal mines rather than mines in general.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Labour, Sherwood

I am pleased to support the amendment. It gives me the opportunity to praise the

work of the Coal Authority, particularly its chairman, John Harris and its chief executive, Ian Roxburgh. The Bill recognises that over many years, since coal privatisation in 1994, the Coal Authority has been working outside its powers.

Clause 87 will provide a proper statutory basis, which is progress, but I want to press progress a little further. The Coal Authority has developed considerable expertise on mine water discharge; not just coal mine water discharge, but mine water discharge in general. It is perhaps now the leading authority in Europe and further afield, and it is important that we use that expertise to make the best of difficult pollution problems.

My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne mentioned Wheal Jane, a tin mine incident, but lots of mining incidents occur throughout the country, and the Coal Authority is often called out to deal with them. Some 40 per cent. of calls to the Coal Authority about mine water discharge turn out not to be coal-related issues. A sensible point is being made, which is that the Environment Agency should act as a regulatory body. At the moment, it is not just a regulator; it is often asked to devise schemes and put them into action.

As my hon. Friend said, the amendment would introduce a permissive power that allows cost recovery. The Coal Authority has the expertise, and it makes good sense to try to use it in a more proactive and thoughtful way. I should be grateful if the Minister told us about any discussions that there have been with the Coal Authority. Has he met John Harris, the authority's chairman, and what is the view of other partners? I am told that the Environment Agency supports the idea in principle, and I know that the Local Government Association does. My understanding is that the Department of Trade and Industry, which sponsors the Coal Authority, is not averse to the approach, although as always it is worried about cost. However, there is a good deal of support for the amendment.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friends make a persuasive case for the amendment. The hon. Member for Leominster asked why the power relates to coal. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) said, the Coal Authority already carries out the work, and the clause will formalise the situation. The Coal Authority is vulnerable to potential liabilities in common law for pollution emanating from underground workings in its ownership. It has some responsibilities as a non-departmental public body accountable to the Department of Trade and Industry, as was stated, too. It also deals with mines where there is no ownership but a potential of mine water pollution.

The Coal Authority has redoubled its efforts on coal mine water in the past two years, and we were keen to see it take on that work. My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne mentioned the problems of tin mines, and I do not deny that they are a problem in some constituencies, but coal mines are a national problem, because of their sheer numbers and the responsibility that falls on the Coal Authority.

My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne was right to say that other mines cause pollution. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood pointed out, it is also true that the Coal Authority has valuable expertise that may be helpful in dealing with particular problems. As it stands, the Environment Agency carries the responsibility for mine water pollution incidents from tin mines in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne. To give the agency credit, it has done a lot of work in recent years and takes the problem seriously.

The question is whether the Coal Authority requires a statutory change of powers in relation to other mines. Is it in a position to take on the responsibility, and can it give technical support and advice without necessarily needing statutory changes to give it an element of flexibility? Could we have closer working between the Coal Authority and the Environment Agency on mine water pollution, particularly if it involves tin mines?

My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne is particularly knowledgeable on that matter and has made the case. She raises an important issue and has been active on it in relation to her constituency. I suggest that she and I have a formal meeting to explore whether there could be better co-ordination and whether there are skills and experience that we can apply to the tin mine sector and potential pollution in a way that addresses her concerns.

Photo of Ms Candy Atherton Ms Candy Atherton Labour, Falmouth and Camborne 10:00, 21 October 2003

I am very grateful to the Minister and I accept his fair offer, but could the Coal Authority be involved in those discussions? That would enable us to move the issue forward constructively.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Yes, I am only too happy to talk to the Coal Authority about this issue. To answer my hon. Friend's earlier comments, let me say that I do not have that much of a connection with the authority, because it is accountable to the DTI, not DEFRA, but it has experience on pollution control and minewater pollution that could be useful to us, so it should be involved.

Photo of Ms Candy Atherton Ms Candy Atherton Labour, Falmouth and Camborne

In view of that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 87 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 5 agreed to.