A GROUP of Scottish authorities is threatening legal action to prevent the liquidator of Scottish Coal from abandoning disused open-cast mines, with clean-up bills running to tens of millions of pounds.

The councils of East Ayrshire and South Lanarkshire as well as the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) have been consulting lawyers over how to respond to a petition to the Court of Session by liquidator KPMG for permission to walk away from up to 15 former mines across the central belt. If the liquidator is successful, the authorities are likely to be saddled with the clean-up costs.

The liquidator confirmed on Friday that it had selected the Durham-based energy and waste group, Hargreaves Services, as "preferred bidder for certain Scottish Coal assets". While it has yet to be decided which assets Hargreaves will buy, should KPMG be granted permission to abandon the unwanted sites, this is likely to reduce pressure on the buyer to take responsibility for some of them and undermine any profitability.

The Scottish Open Cast Mining Taskforce, set up by the Government following the collapse of Scottish Coal, does not want a buyer to "cherry-pick" the best assets.

The sudden liquidation of Scotland's biggest coal-mining operation, Scottish Coal/Castlebridge Plant, led to the redundancies of 590 miners in Ayrshire, Lanarkshire and Fife last month. Of the 142 staff kept on to assist with the liquidation, it is understood that a further 22 were made redundant last week.

Due to years of lax arrangements between Scottish councils and mining companies, the firm had been allowed build up a backlog of 11 former mines that had never been restored to their natural state in line with planning requirements. Some have been empty since the late 1990s, while four of its six existing open-cast mines seem unlikely to be reopened by a potential buyer, further adding to the size of the clean-up.

Blair Nimmo, KPMG head of insolvency, said there were "differing views" on the cost of restoration once the insurance had been claimed, but that it would be "substantial tens of millions" of pounds.

He added that the pension deficit, little more than £7 million in the group accounts for the year ended March 2011, the most recent available, would be made considerably higher by the way pensions are treated when a company goes into insolvency. This too would be in the "tens of millions," making the total outstanding amount in excess of £100m.

With regard to who would be responsible for the cost of the environmental clean-up, Nimmo said: "There's not a lot of precedent. We've got a company with a liability attached that's insolvent and can no longer honour those obligations. Is it the landowner's responsibility? Is it the local authority's? Whose is it? Clearly the public safety aspect will take precedence."

Scottish LibDem leader and Dunfermline and West Fife MSP Willie Rennie demanded a "full review of the industry" in light of the revelations.

He said: "These are considerable liabilities, way beyond what was expected, and cast serious doubt on the ongoing viability of this industry in the short and medium term.

"The countryside is littered with the legacy of failed open-cast mining operations. We need a full review of the industry and the support and approval Government provides before we make further significant commitments to it."

An insolvency lawyer who wanted to remain anonymous said that if Sepa and the two councils succeed in blocking KPMG's petition, they could still be stuck with the clean-up because any unrealised assets at the end of the liquidation process would be returned to the Crown. He said it could create an undesirable precedent for the public authorities.