Clean up act

Evidence produced by Newcastle University has helped to convince the European Parliament to strengthen draft legislation which would force mining companies to clean up their act.

Evidence produced by researchers at Newcastle University has helped to convince the European Parliament to strengthen draft legislation which would force mining companies to clean up their act, safeguarding the environment and human life.

Euro-MPs supported the idea of introducing tough new rules on the control waste from mining and quarrying, which would bring the rest of Europe into line with Britain, which has had the highest standards in the world since the 1966 Aberfan disaster.

The Directive on the Management of Waste from the Extractive Industries was supported by the European Parliament in Strasbourg. The Parliament strengthened the original proposals by making more than 100 changes, which are now subject to scrutiny by the council of ministers.

If the legislation is approved in its current form, mining companies will bear much more responsibility for ensuring that existing and abandoned workings are safe to humans and the environment. A side-effect may be an increase in the price of imported coal, making British deep mining more economically viable. A number of deep pits in the Selby complex in Yorkshire are threatened with closure in 2004.

Paul Younger, Professor of hydrogeochemical engineering, and his colleague Jaime Amezaga, a specialist in mining policy and legislation, worked with the environmental lobby group WWF to present the European Parliament with the evidence that tougher laws were required.

This evidence was based on European Commission-funded research led by Professor Younger into the environmental regulation of mining, its problems and how it might be improved. Britain introduced the toughest safety laws in the world after the 1966 Aberfan disaster in South Wales, when 116 children and 28 adults died under a landslide of coal waste caused by the collapse of a pit heap.

More recent ecological disasters on mainland Europe include the release of huge amounts of polluted minewater into the environment at the Aznalcollar mine in Spain in 1998 and at the Baia Mare mine in Romania in 2000.

The Directive states that ‘these impacts can have lasting environmental and socio-economic consequences and be extremely difficult and costly to address through remedial measures.’ Numerous small-scale pollution incidents also add up to a major impact on the environment, since extractive industries account for about 29% of total waste generated in the EU each year.

After the successful first reading, rapporteur Euro-MP Jonas Sjoested said the draft legislation would slow down the rate of accidents such as those in Spain and Romania. ‘Operators will now be forced to clean up sites once they have finished mining a particular area. Toxic lagoons in disused mines should now be a thing of the past,’ he said.

Campaigner Eva Royo Gelabert of WWF said the parliament had done a ‘fantastic job’ on the European Commission’s original proposal, backing the line of its environment committee. ‘They’ve realised there were gaps and they’ve overcome them,’ she said.

The Directive will not be finalised before the end of this year.

Among its key points are that member states should draw up within three years an inventory of closed and disused mining sites and facilities, classified according to the degree of danger they pose; they would have to begin “rehabilitation” of the worst sites within a further year. It also states that there should be a bigger emphasis on waste prevention, stronger links to the EU water framework directive, more explicit mention of the need to avoid damaging protected areas, and more measures to prevent pollution from the flooding of underground mining “voids” and from temporarily removed topsoil.

Professor Younger said he was delighted with the progress of the Directive. ‘The European Parliament made over 100 amendments to strengthen the original proposals, despite some strong lobbying from the mining industry not to do so,’ he said.

‘This is an excellent result and goes to show that the European Parliament is responsive to solid evidence presented in the right way. The Directive still has a long way to go and we will be working hard to try to ensure that it is not watered down.’

Some of the research by Professor Younger and colleagues was carried out in North East England – for example, at Quaking Houses in County Durham, where a Newcastle University team solved a minewater pollution problem by creating a wetland area, which is now used as a research facility.