FEARS that a ‘Dead Sea’ could be created off the coast of South Tyneside have been raised over plans to pump untreated mine water into the sea.
The Coal Authority plans to abstract mine water from a borehole at Whitburn Coastal Park to drain water which has flooded the former Westoe, Wearmouth and Whitburn Collieries.
The water would then be discharged directly into the sea through a new 270ft outfall pipe to a point below low tide.
The action is planned to prevent rising water levels from old workings potentially polluting the drinking water of 30,000 residents in South Tyneside and Sunderland within a few years.
Members of South Tyneside Council’s Place Committee met yesterday to discuss the implications of the plan – which will be overseen by the Environment Agency.
Grave fears were raised that contaminants from the old workings, such as salts and irons, could have a serious impact on sea and plant life in the area.
David Shepherd, contract manager with the Coal Authority, said: “We are very confident that this proposal to put untreated mine waters into the sea will have no substantive difference.
“The effect will be limited to a very narrow zone.
“This discharge will require a permit from the Environment Agency. Stringent conditions will be laid down.”
Members were told that, if tests did show a problem “after one or two years”, treatment of the mine water could then take place.
But Coun Joyce Welsh, who represents Labour for West Park, South Shields, warned “that would be too late”.
Coun Welsh said: “What I am concerned about is that there is some fantastic sea life in that area.
“We need to consider the impact on the fishing environment and coastal environment. Some of that iron is salty, that could cover the seabed and then you have the Dead Sea effect.
“If the iron builds up, that could mean that marine life in that area will never come back. Treatment after two years would be too late.”
Coun Welsh also questioned the impact on bird and insect life in the coastal park itself.
Her fears were echoed by Coun Sylvia Spraggon, Labour ward member for Whitburn and Marsden, who said: “There are grave concerns over the contaminants that have built up since the colliery closed in 1968.”
Committee chairman Coun Nancy Maxwell, who represents Hebburn South for Labour, said: “The message is clear. There is still a lot of uncertainty around the scheme and the impact it will have on South Tyneside’s coastline. We are far from convinced that this is right for the area.”
Coun Tracey Dixon, who represents Whitburn and Marsden for Labour, also criticised the Coal Authority for “failing to consult with ward members” for more than a year.
Now the Coal Authority has been asked to report back.
The National Trust’s Nick Dolan, general manager at Souter Lighthouse, said: “The Trust has been in close discussion with South Tyneside Council over these plans.
“We recognise the necessity for this work and that Whitburn Coast Park, the site of a former colliery itself, is the preferred location for this to happen.
“Over the last few years, the National Trust has given agreement for testing at Whitburn Coastal Park, in order to assess the best way to deal with waste mine water.
“The results of that testing have influenced the decision to undertake this work underground at Whitburn Coastal Park.
“We are now working in partnership with the council and other agencies to ensure minimal disruption to the area, including the marine environment.”
The local authority is waiting for a final submission on the full details of the scheme, after which it will be able to advise the Coal Authority of any consents that will be required from the council.
The Coal Authority hopes to have the pumping site operational by next summer.