AN environmental campaigner has laughed off claims by the Government that disclosing details about sewerage workings off the South Tyneside coast could endanger our national security.
Bob Latimer has long campaigned for ongoing transparency over the treatment and levels of potentially polluted mine water being pumped into the sea off Whitburn.
The Coal Authority devised the plan to reduce rising levels of mine water from collieries which closed in the early 1990s.
It warns that if water is allowed to continue rising it is likely to result in contamination of an overlying aquifer which supplies drinking water to 30,000 residents in South Tyneside and Sunderland.
Mr Latimer has pursued an ongoing dialogue with the Environment Agency, the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and other bodies to keep abreast of pumping levels.
But his latest request for information has led to Defra invoking a regulation which states disclosure would “adversely affect international relations, defence, national security or public safety”.
Mr Latimer requested an update from the government department over information it provided to the European Court of Justice surrounding a breach of a water treatment directive at Whitburn.
And the 71-year-old, who runs the Latimers Seafood Deli in Bents Road, Whitburn, has described the response as “comical”.
He said: “Defra say to disclose the information I am requesting would adversely affect international relations, defence, national security or public safety, and then they go further, stating disclosure would adversely affect the course of justice.
“This is quite comical and makes one wonder why they are withholding the information when all I am doing is asking about a sewerage system.”
Mr Latimer insists disclosure is in the “public interest”, adding: “Withholding information discriminates against the public interest. The public need to rely on Defra to have the ability, as a public authority, to conduct an inquiry in a fair and honest manner.”
In response Ed Beard, head of waste water treatment with Defra, said it was currently in negotiations with the European Commission to rectify the water treatment breach, and claimed disclosure of the information requested would “adversely affect the UK’s relations with the European Commission”.
Mr Beard adds: “We recognise there would be a strong public interest in the disclosure of the information bearing in mind the general arguments in favour of transparency and accountability and Mr Latimer’s long-standing concerns about the environmental impacts of untreated waste water in Whitburn.
“On the other hand, there is a strong public interest in maintaining exemptions as disclosure would likely affect the UK’s ability to hold open and frank discussions with the Commission.”
Defra would not comment further.