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North leads bid to clean up our rivers; Metal mining leaves legacy of pollution.

Byline: Adrian Pearson

THE North East is leading a pounds 400m bid to clean up UK rivers poisoned by hundreds of years of metal mining. Newcastle University and regional minister Nick Brown have lent their backing to efforts to convince the Government to make the Coal Authority responsible for hundreds of "orphaned" mines regularly leaking acidic waste and metals into major rivers. The Coal Authority took over responsibility for unused coal mines 15 years ago, partly as a result of the efforts of Mr Brown, then an opposition MP.

But the agency currently has no powers to deal with the non-coal metal mines polluting the UK.

Experts at Newcastle University have been investigating the threats posed by long-abandoned metal mines since 1995.

In the North East alone, university research shows the River Dent and the West Allen are among the worst polluted in the country.

And test on the River South Tyne show that at points there are some 123 tonnes of metal pollution a year flowing through the river, the majority of it zinc.

Prof Paul Younger, pro-vice chancellor for engagement at the university, said that despite the threat of Government cuts, there was an urgent need for cash to tackle pollution.

He said: "What we see is zinc-loving algae that kill off all other life. So instead of fish and birds in beautiful scenery we get discoloured rivers.

"And because there is no single body to look after these the problem just gets worse. Who pays for this is another problem. These mines were never in public hands and so there are questions over who picks up the bill.

"Normally the argument is that the polluter pays, but these are mines that in some cases have been abandoned for hundreds of years."

Capital costs alone for cleaning up the pollution would run to pounds 400m, with much more spent on day to day running costs.

Nick Brown, Labour's chief whip, told industry experts at Newcastle University, that he believed the Coal Authority had "built up vast reserves of expertise" and should be handed the extra clean-up funds.

The Newcastle East and Wallsend MP said: "We have to be careful, because as soon we start asking who should pay you get quarrels which lead to delays, and we do not want any excuses that can be used to help people avoid taking a decision.

"And of course, when it comes to asking where this money is we are often just told to make the polluter pay. Since nationally some of these mines are left over from the Roman Empire I'm really not sure who we should ask.

"But there is nothing to say why, with all our success as a region in leading the way in low carbon technology, we cannot lead the way in cleaning up our river systems."

Helen Mounsey, chairwoman of the Coal Authority, said the agency would welcome the opportunity to clean up UK waterways.

She said: "Our work began in the North East and I'm delighted to be here to see the start of the next steps."
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Mar 29, 2010
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