A SCOTTISH council has had to cough up its biggest ever pay-out after bungling a planning application from one of the UK’s largest coal mining companies.
ATH Resources – who are currently under investigation by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency – were handed more than £175,000 by Fife Council after the Scottish Government overturned the council’s application refusal.
The coal mining firm was also recently fined £10,000 for paving over protected peatland near another of their opencast mines at Grievehill in Ayreshire.
Alistair Black, Chief Executive of ATH Resources, said: “It was something that the company did not relish having to do, but given the decision by the reporter it is quite clear that the councillors based their decision on unreasonable grounds.
“We felt compelled to seek compensation for the costs incurred, as these sorts of things are very costly for the business.
“It also shows that importance of council members listening to the recommendations of the council planning officers.”
The planning application for the open-cast coal mine at Muirdean near Crossgates in Fife was originally rejected by councillors in 2006.
But the company was eventually given permission to extract two million tonnes of coal from the site over four and a half years in November 2007 after a public inquiry successfully challenged the ruling.
And now it has emerged that the council have had to pay out £177,670 in expenses incurred by ATH Resources – the largest ever by the council.
A spokesperson for Fife Council confirmed that the decision was taken by council members against the advice of their planning officers.
Jim Birrell, Development and Regeneration Manager at Fife Council, said: “This is the highest compensation payout of its kind we’ve had to make and it has highlighted the dangers of taking decisions without sound planning reasons behind them.
“As a council we’ve learned a number of lessons and, in the intervening years, we’ve introduced training sessions for our elected members to improve support in this area.
“Members have a democratic right to take decisions contrary to planning officers’ advice but it is our role to support them so that they take decisions which can always be justified.”
Robin Harper, Scottish Green Party MSP, lodged a motion in the Scottish Parliament calling for a moratorium on opencast mining in recent months.
He said: “Open-cast coal mining is a blight for communities across Scotland.
“It is environmentally damaging, has harmful effects on the health and lifestyles of the disrupted communities that are forced to live with it on their doorsteps, and it is incompatible with the Scottish Government’s stated climate change targets and a clean, low carbon future for Scotland.
“I applaud Fife Council for sticking to its guns and standing against this ill-thought-out opencast project.
“It is a scandal that the Scottish Government ruled in favour of the development, and that Fife Council is being forced to give taxpayers’ money to the developer, especially since this represents the hard-earned cash of the very same taxpayers whose lives may be damaged by the new open-cast mine.
“Scotland should be investing in proven renewable energy generating technologies, not digging more great holes in the ground to enable outmoded and inefficient power stations to pump more dirt and Co2 into the air.
“The Scottish Government should bring in a moratorium on new opencast projects and set out a timescale for the phasing out of Scotland’s two coal-fired power stations immediately.”
ATH Resources is also at the centre of a pollution probe after hundreds of gallons of sludge from another of their open-cast mines at Kirkconnel in Dumfries and Galloway escaped into one of Scotland’s most famous trout-fishing rivers in June.
The spillage into the River Nith sparked an investigation by SEPA, still ongoing, and could result in ATG being reported to prosecutors and fined up to £40,000 for environmental damage.
ATH chief Mr Black added that he was “disappointed” about the incident.
He said: “It was some material that entered into the River Nith, and we reacted quickly and with the Nith District Salmon Fishery Board and SEPA we managed to clean the river and it’s now back to normal.
“We were disappointed about the way it happened.”
A spokesperson for SEPA declined to comment, except to confirm that their investigation into the incident was continuing.