Last month, bosses at Northumberland County Council agreed to set aside £4.5milliom to clear decades of waste and other pollutants from Lynemouth Beach.
But they have warned their environmental commitments may be forced to take a back seat if further legacies of the region’s mining heyday are uncovered elsewhere.
“We’ve made a commitment to this project, it’s quite a large financial commitment and quite a large political commitment,” said county councillor for Corbridge Nick Oliver.
“But I accept that most local authorities, or many local authorities, wouldn’t be in a position to do that.
“And we certainly wouldn’t be in a position to do another one, if there was another piece of land, further down the coast, that also needed addressing.”
Relics of the county’s former coal mining heritage, including pipes, cables, rubble and even traces of asbestos, have all been uncovered at the site in recent years.
Erosion of the beach and cliffs has uncovered the remnants of a former industrial landfill buried under a layer of sand, which has since started to wash away.
Since the scale of the waste dumped was identified in 2019, experts have found contaminants ‘with the potential to harm human health’, but have stressed they present a ‘very low risk’.
Normally the organisation responsible for polluting the land would have to cover costs, but in the case of Lynemouth the burden now falls on the main landowners, including the county council.
And due to the ‘relatively low risk to human health’, any intervention would have to be voluntary, under existing rules.
The county council eventually hopes to spend £7million restoring the site and, subject to receiving an Environmental Waste Permit, hopes to start work in the autumn on excavating more than 280,000 tonnes of material.
While the local authority has put up £4.5million, which it insists will be enough to ‘do the job’, it hopes the Coal Board and other landowners stump up a further £2.5million to ensure the restoration is completed to the desired standard.
But experts have also warned the true extent of the problem may not be known until clean-up work starts in earnest.
Aaron McNeil, the county council’s flood and coastal risk manager, told Friday’s meeting of the Northumbria Regional Flood and Coastal Committee: “As soon as all permissions are in place we intend to start and make best use of the funding until more becomes available.
“[But] there’s possibly greater investment required for schemes of this type.
“To date, we’ve spent in the order of £500,000 carrying out various investigations seeking permissions, and developing the design – costs associated with handling waste materials are quite significant.
“Much of the waste is buried, so its true extent can’t easily be seen [and] I suppose we don’t really know until we start digging.”
Since the problem was identified a number of temporary measures have been introduced in the area. These include the temporary diversion of the England Coastal Path and continued pollution clearance. The council has also been doing additional clean-up visits on the beach to remove any waste materials that are washing out from the site.
Local Democracy Reporting Service