Fund helps study effects of lead mines on water quality

date19 July 2012

A study commissioned by Scotland's environment watchdog, and supported by Scotland's River Restoration Fund, is resulting in a better understanding of the effects of old lead mines on the Leadhills area of South Lanarkshire.

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The results, which show there are increased levels of lead, zinc and cadmium in the Glengonnar Water, are the start of a process exploring whether water quality can be improved as part of legislation that seeks to bring 97% of Scotland's water bodies up to good status by 2027. Preliminary work also suggests there are similar metal levels in the nearby Wanlock Water, in Dumfries and Galloway, though further investigation is being carried out to better understand this.

Scottish Water draws the local drinking water supply from a different area and it is sampled regularly to ensure it meets statutory requirements set out by the Drinking Water Quality Regulator.

Leadhills, as the name suggests, has a long history of lead mining and although there was anecdotal evidence of lead affecting the local environment, there was no real understanding of the effect or where it was originating from. In Scotland there is no organisation responsible for contamination from non coal mines, which previously created a gap in knowledge. However, over the last few years the Coal Authority has developed expertise through its work into similar issues in England and Wales.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) commissioned and funded the Coal Authority to investigate the Glengonnar Water and ensure all the information was available to begin exploring options to tackle the effects.

Carol McGinnes, SEPA Area Manager in the South West, said:

There was anecdotal evidence of lead affecting the water bodies in the Leadhills area, but we needed to know the extent, precisely where it is coming from, and where it is entering the water environment. Only then could we start making plans to improve the quality.

"The investigation work has shown that drains, designed to protect the mineral reserves when the mines were operating, are still discharging water even though the mines have been closed for around 80 years. It is thought that roof collapses have also resulted in mine waters being forced to the surface and discharging from abandoned shafts. Run off from spoil heaps could also be part of the problem, and this adds to the numerous points of pollution down the watercourse."

SEPA has shared the report with partner organisations looking after the health of the communities in and around the Leadhills area, to ensure that they can consider the information in the delivery of their work.

Carol explained:

Protecting human health and the environment often amounts to the same thing and it was important for the health agencies in the area to be aware of what we had found in our survey. It was important the local communities could be assured that while the pollution found was having an unexpected effect on water quality, it did not compromise the health of the local communities."

Dr David Cromie, NHS Lanarkshire Consultant in Public Health Medicine, said:

On balance, and on the basis of the evidence we are already aware of, potential hazards do exist. However, the concentrations to which local people are likely to be exposed do not appear to be high enough to pose a significant overall risk to health for local residents, provided practical measures are followed. As such, the risk is considered to be low.

"However, the historical legacy of the lead mining industry means that people living in the Leadhills and Wanlockhead areas are likely to continue to be exposed to low levels of environmental metal exposure above the norm for most of the population. On that basis we have issued some practical suggestions to the local population on how they can minimise the exposure to these remaining environmental metal residues. The information provided also includes a contact telephone number, if any resident has any supplementary questions."

Preliminary sampling has shown that the nearby Wanlock Water, in Dumfries and Galloway, also has increased levels of metals, which are likely to be from the same sources. This year SEPA has provided additional funding to enable The Coal Authority to fully investigate the levels in the Wanlock Water, which is currently classified as of ''good' water quality. It is likely this classification will have to change and this will be reviewed when the results of this survey are in. Once that investigation is complete, SEPA will review both the Glengonnar and Wanlock Water results and develop a plan with partners to investigate potential solutions.

Ends

Notes to editors

The full report is available on our Restoration Fund pages.

SEPA has shared this report with:

  • Lanarkshire NHS Board;
  • Dumfries & Galloway NHS Board;
  • Dumfries & Galloway Council;
  • South Lanarkshire Council;
  • Scottish Water;
  • Food Standards Agency (FSA) Scotland;
  • Scottish Water;
  • Health Protection Scotland.

The NHS risk assessment can be viewed at www.nhsdg.org.uk/Documents/RiskAssessment.pdf

River basin management plans

Under RBMP waterbodies are classified into; high, good, moderate, poor or bad.

Full details of SEPA's processes and targets for improving Scotland's water environment can be found in the Scotland and Solway-Tweed River Basin Management Plans, available at www.sepa.org.uk.

River restoration fund

In 2008, SEPA received funding from the Scottish Government to promote the restoration of the water environment – rivers, lochs, coastal estuarine and wetland systems – to achieve river basin management planning objectives. 

The funding is to assist in delivering the obligations of the Water Environment and Water Services (Scotland) Act 2003 by contributing to the delivery of the objectives specified in the river basin management plans (RBMP). The Scottish Government intends the fund to assist delivery of objectives in situations where the use of regulatory powers is not appropriate. The fund is expected to cover situations such as:

  • restoration of the morphology (i.e. the condition of the banks, bed and shore) of the water environment where the damage was caused by historic activities;
  • control of invasive non-native species;
  • provision of treatment for discharges from abandoned non-coal mines.