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Opencast coal case could be landmark for environmental protection

Last modified: 13 September 2013

Loading truck, St Aidens opencast coal mine

Image: Andy Hay

The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), Scottish Government and Local Authorities are in Court this week to appeal a highly controversial decision made in the courts in July. 

That decision ruled that the liquidators of collapsed opencast coal mining company Scottish Coal, could simply abandon coal mines and polluted land without carrying out restoration or controlling pollution from the sites.  Some of the sites are next to homes and communities and many include important areas for wildlife but the decision means priority would be given to passing any remaining funds to creditors, including banks. 

The unprecedented decision was heavily criticised by environmental groups, including RSPB Scotland.  If allowed to stand, the decision could mean clean up costs fall to the taxpayer, and in some instances adequate cleanup is unlikely ever to happen.

This court decision is particularly important because it comes after it was revealed that financial bonds intended to pay for restoration should this situation arise and coal companies go bankrupt, may be almost worthless.

Aedan Smith, Head of Planning and Development at RSPB Scotland, said: "We fully support the decision of SEPA, Scottish Ministers and the local authorities to challenge this very concerning decision.  Environmental protection laws exist in this country to protect all of us. The real loser if this decision is allowed to stand will be the Scottish public and taxpayer, not to mention the important wildlife at some of the sites involved. 

“It is a fundamental principle of European and Scottish law that the polluter should pay - that means private companies must pay up for the damage they cause to the environment.  Going bankrupt must not be a route for environmental vandals to escape justice. 

“It is also vitally important that we find out exactly why the restoration bonds have failed catastrophically when called on to perform the very role they exist for."

The case is being heard all week in the Court of Session in Edinburgh and is open to the public.

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