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Opencast mines will lead to public health disaster, warns poison expert

SCOTLAND is sleepwalking into a public health disaster by ignoring the dangers of emissions from opencast mines, a leading toxicologist has warned.

The risk posed by a new development in South Lanarkshire is such that the town of Douglas should be bulldozed and its residents rehoused at the taxpayers’ expense, Dr Dick van Steenis said.

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Dr van Steenis is a Wales-based medic who helped kick-start successful legal action in Corby, where a decommissioned steel works was blamed for local birth defects.

After visiting Douglas this week to address campaigners opposed to the new opencast mine, the expert said authorities were failing to address the threats posed by airborne particles from the site, including increased risk of cancer, asthma, heart attacks and strokes.

“The authorities are doing nothing. Nothing’s being checked, there’s no effective regulation and the quangos are telling whoppers,” he said.

The Mainshill mine, which has already been given the go-ahead by planners and the Scottish Government, is fiercely opposed by local activists.

Campaigners cite numerous studies showing a correlation between high mortality rates and proximity to opencast sites, including work published in the British Medical Journal, and the American Journal of Public Health.

If completed, the mine will be the fourth pit in the area and Douglas will have more opencast mining than any other town in the UK.

Construction has already been hindered by protesters occupying the land with Scotland’s first climate change camp. Earlier this week an activist was arrested after he climbed onto a drilling rig and stopped work for several hours.

Although many protesters have been driven by anger at the mine’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions, Dr van Steenis said he was not opposed to coal power plants in principle.

“I’m not anti-coal, but if it’s really in the national interest to mine for it there then they should bulldoze down Douglas and rebuild it in a safer place,” he said.

“It would actually make economic sense – they could then mine the coal under the town as well, build a power station and feed it back into the grid, or sell it. It would create jobs, cut the NHS bill and increase exports.”

Around 100 people attended the talk by Dr van Steenis, including Douglas Community Council vice-chair Lindsay Addison, who is leading local opposition. He said: “We want answers. We want to know why no public health inquiry has ever taken place over the effects of opencasting in the Douglas Valley.

“The statistics are clear – Douglas residents are dying substantially more from certain illnesses than people in non-opencast areas. You can see the dust coming off these mines, off the coal lorries and settling on the windows of our local hospital.”

Scottish Coal, which has permission to extract 1.7 million tonnes of fuel from the site, said there were no grounds for public fears.

While it takes local concerns seriously, the company said, it carried out a full consultation with Lanarkshire Health Authority as part of the planning process and found that cancer deaths were not significantly higher in the Douglas area, despite the three existing mines.

In addition, the company spokesman said, Scottish Coal employees are medically screened every two years, with no evidence found of increased levels of disease.

Scottish Coal also cited a Holyrood guideline which supported the findings of the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP), which advises governments on air pollution. It said “it was considered most unlikely that opencast sites would have any long-term effects on the health of local communities”.

But earlier this month Douglas GPs Dr Robert Flowerdew and Dr Michael Coates quoted another COMEAP study suggesting long-term exposure to air pollutants has an effect on mortality.

While they wished to avoid creating a “panic”, the ­doctors said, their duty to their patients and the evidence laid before them led them to “feel strongly that the issue of the public health risk of particulates resulting from opencast mining coal should be fully addressed by the authorities.”

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