Highthorn: Concerns on noise, water and light highlighted

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Noise, hydrology and light pollution were discussed this morning as the planning inquiry for the Highthorn surface mine entered its third week.

The hearing into The Banks Group’s controversial opencast scheme near Widdrington and Druridge Bay started the Wednesday before last, at Kingston Park in Newcastle. A decision is likely to follow in about three months’ time.

The first seven days, split over two weeks, saw company representatives give evidence on topics such as landscape and visuals, ecology, climate change and planning policy before witnesses were called on behalf of Northumberland County Council, which is defending its decision, in July last year, to approve the scheme, before it was called in by Secretary of State Sajid Javid.

On Friday, there was a chance for members of the public to speak, with a number passionately putting forward their views.

Today saw the attention turn to witnesses for campaign group Save Druridge, which was set up to fight the proposals, with the first being consultant Andy Green, who had carried out a review of the noise assessment by Banks.

He outlined a number of aspects in which he disagreed with the company’s assessment and highlighted areas of ‘uncertainty’ where he claimed not enough information had been provided. “I consider the operations site will be a nuisance to nearest noise receptor sites,” he added.

Under cross-examination, he conceded that the noise-level restrictions as set out in the proposed planning conditions met the policy guidance, however, Mr Green stuck to his guns that, regarding the conditions for night-time noise, ‘it’s not acceptable to have a condition without a noise assessment’ and no information had been provided on noise levels from the likes of power tools and pumps. He added that the condition was ‘a subjective measure’ which ‘doesn’t adequately protect receptors from levels on the site’.

The second witness called was Ivor Rackham, who raised his fears about hydrology, specifically rising mine water, and light pollution.

He discussed issues caused by mine water rising from the former Hauxley site and its links to quicksand/sinkholes on the area’s beaches, contaminated water with high levels of heavy metals and the possible impacts on eel populations.

Mr Rackham’s view was that the report commissioned by Banks ‘did not adequately address the issue of mine-water disposal’, adding: “My concern about Highthorn is it will be mirroring what is happening at Hauxley.”

He admitted that he was not an expert in terms of having any qualifications, but said he had spent 250 hours studying it. However, under cross-examination, attention was drawn to a number of cases in which Mr Rackham had made assertions without supporting evidence.

Nathalie Lieven QC, representing Banks, put it to Mr Rackham that the Coal Authority has already committed to draw down surface water to 34 metres below sea level in the Lynemouth mining block, which includes the Highthorn area, meaning the type of issues at Hauxley would not be repeated. But he replied that new, contaminated pools of water had already appeared on the surface in the past two years in the Highthorn area.

Mr Rackham also referred to light pollution from other mining and industrial sites in Northumberland, saying: “Banks has failed to assess fully the light pollution that’s likely to occur from Highthorn.” However, on the issue of sky glow, Ms Lieven said that Banks’ view was based on an expert assessment, whereas his was ‘personal opinion’ supported by no evidence.