A damning independent report has revealed that a series of blunders by East Ayrshire Council meant that it required open-cast coal mining companies to set aside bonded funds of just over £28 million to cover the actual costs of £161 million of restoring ‘unprecedented environmental damage’ after mining operations ceased.
The lack of funds required to landscape and make safe these workings means that the current arrangements on these coal sites are ‘wholly inadequate’, and the report warns:
“We fear it is just a matter of time before a serious, possibly fatal, accident occurs.
“East Ayrshire Council and Administrators KPMG, together with other relevant interests, must address this issue as a matter of priority’.”
Before collapsing in financial ruin last year, the coal mining industry in East Ayrshire represented 15% of the total (opencast and underground) coal production for the UK. For opencast mining alone, East Ayrshire produced over 25% of all UK coal and 53% of that produced in Scotland.
Over time, open cast mining operations were consolidated into three companies following the closure of the last deep coal mine in the area in 1989 – Scottish Coal, Aardvark TMC and Keir Mining. Scottish Coal and Aardvark went into administration last year.
Only Keir Mining continues to operate, with Hargreaves Surface Mining now operating two sites on behalf of ‘Hive Cos’ set up by the administrators KPMG to take forward the assets of the companies which went into administration.
The independent review of opencast coal mining in East Ayrshire by Jim MacKinnon, CBE, former Scottish Government chief planner which was published last week, found that while a generally pro-jobs mindset informed planning consents for coal mining operations, this did not lead to ‘unreasonable, far less perverse’ planning decisions.
The report notes that while the most immediate economic impact of the mining companies falling into administration was the loss of more than 300 jobs, the ‘scale of the environmental devastation – which is difficult to comprehend – left in East Ayrshire soon became evident’. It is estimated that there are more than 2,000 hectares of un-restored and disturbed land within East Ayrshire”.
Allegations of criminally corrupt relations between elected councillors and coal mining company officials were – contrary to some media reports – not substantiated. However, East Ayrshire Council was severely criticised for;
‘Major and persistent failings in procedure and practice’
‘Staff resources were inadequate to cope with the scale and challenge of coal mining operations in the area
‘Reports on planning applications inexplicably failed to highlight lack of progress with restoration and after-care
‘The process for calculating and monitoring restoration bonds was wholly deficient and defective
‘Monitoring progress on coal mining sites was wholly inadequate
‘The lack of awareness within the senior management of East Ayrshire Council of the environmental damage being wreaked by the coal operators who have gone into liquidation and the financial implications of their actions / inactions is something we have found difficult to understand or explain
‘These failings are many and varied but at their core lie significant and ongoing individual, management and communications failings – particularly within the planning service – in respect to drawing up and monitoring of restoration guarantee bonds
“It is difficult to explain these major findings other than to say that the regulatory aspect of the planning service was not given the priority it required in relation to open cast mining operations. For that, management in the planning service must accept major responsibility.”
A spokesman for East Ayrshire Council said: “The Council has agreed a series of actions to address the issue of opencast mining restoration in East Ayrshire following the collapse of Scottish Coal and Aardvark earlier this year. These actions are in relation to a number of issues, including local employment and business impacts, environmental considerations, planning applications and compliance monitoring and restoration of existing opencast sites.”
- In preparing for the independent review last year, one of the ‘series of actions’ taken by East Ayrshire Council was to hire the Golley-Slater private-sector public relations agency to help protect the council’s reputation ‘at very favourable rates at an estimated cost of £0.018m.’