Greens raise concerns over pumping test at former mining site

Water seeping through the cliffs at Hauxley - orange discolouration is often associated with manganese. Picture by Ivor Rackham
Water seeping through the cliffs at Hauxley - orange discolouration is often associated with manganese. Picture by Ivor Rackham

Water from a former mine on the north Northumberland coast is to be pumped out into the North Sea for a limited time, it has been confirmed.

The issue, at Hauxley, was brought to light by Berwick-upon-Tweed Constituency Green Party and while the Coal Authority has confirmed pumping is taking place, the two organisations are not in agreement over the causes or the potential impacts on the environment.

Flooding at the allotments at Hauxley in March 2017. Picture by Ivor Rackham

Flooding at the allotments at Hauxley in March 2017. Picture by Ivor Rackham

The Green Party describes it as ‘millions of litres of untreated and toxic mine-water’, but the authority says that treatment of the water is not necessary, during the pumping test for a limited period, as it is ‘only moderately mineralised’.

An investigation carried out by the Greens previously revealed ‘the alarming rise in water levels’ in the abandoned Hauxley mine since the pumps were switched off.

That rising mine-water has been shown to be heavily contaminated, says the Green Party, and responsible for the developing areas of quicksand on the beach and for flooding within Hauxley village.

The Coal Authority says that the pumping test is part of investigating the water levels and quality, but that it is not aware of any direct connection between the flooding and the mine workings.

Thomas Stewart, who stood for the Green Party in the Berwick constituency at the General Election in June, said: “To be putting this contaminated water into the sea without proper filtration or treatment is insane – the health of our coast and inshore waters is critical to the future economy of Northumberland.

“This mine-water has extremely high levels of manganese, which can be absorbed by crabs and other shellfish, and may then enter the food chain – manganese is a known toxin and can cause symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease.

“Why were NIFCA (the Northumberland Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority) not consulted on this?”

Manganese is a required trace mineral, meaning it is an important element for human health with the body containing around 12mg, but it is toxic in higher quantities.

Mr Stewart added: “It would be nice to think that the Coal Authority was restarting pumping (with filtration) because they now recognise their ongoing liability for the historic problems caused by the rising waters.

“However, part of me thinks that this new (unfiltered) pumping may instead be part of its attempt to lower the water table across the whole area, to assist Banks’ catastrophic proposals for a new opencast coal mine at Highthorn.”

The Green Party is calling on the Marine Management Organisation, Natural England, the Environment Agency and the county council to step in as a matter of urgency and to insist on filtration – doing nothing is not an option.

A spokesman for the Coal Authority said: “Underground coal mining in the area ceased more than 50 years ago in the mid 1960s.

“However, the area was also subject to opencast coal mining for many years, where the groundwater was artificially lowered by the mine operators pumping water so they could extract the coal.

“When the opencast mining ceased about 10 years ago, the private mining companies turned off the pumps at High Hauxley and the water began returning to its natural rest levels.

“As the opencast mining operators no longer exist, the Coal Authority is working in partnership with the Environment Agency to assess what options may be appropriate to alleviate any potential impacts of the water returning to its natural levels, if this is required. We are also in discussions with other key partner agencies within the local area.

“The localised flooding around Hauxley allotments is being looked at by Northumberland County Council as the lead local flood authority, supported by the Environment Agency which is taking samples for analysis. The results will help determine where the water may be coming from and what action, if any, is required. We are not aware of any direct connection to the underground mine workings here or on the beach.

“To further assess potential options, the Coal Authority has been granted permission by the regulators to undertake a pumping test for a limited period. This is to investigate water levels and quality within the mine workings in the Hauxley area and all works are being conducted in compliance with these permissions.

“The quality of the water being pumped is very similar to that which was discharged at the outfall during the opencast operations. As the water is only moderately mineralised, treatment was not considered necessary during that mining period.

“The volumes of water being discharged during this test are also significantly lower than those which were pumped during opencast operations.

“A technical report concluded that the pumping test will not adversely affect the environmentally protected sites in the local area.”