Companies must take early action to tackle opencast health fears

Opencast mining companies seeking permission for new sites should tackle parents’ fears about their children’s health as early as possible, new research suggests.

A new study, by the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, published in the current edition of the academic journal, Social Science and Medicine (1), indicates that residents are likely to oppose new proposals for opencast mines, even if communities surrounding existing sites have had positive experiences.

Merely turning up at public meetings with the intention of winning over protestors is not sufficient for companies to build a good name within a community, say the Newcastle University researchers. Opencast businesses need to develop far-reaching public relations strategies in order to minimise time consuming, and, sometimes, costly confrontations with residents.

The findings will prove significant for opencast businesses throughout the UK that are seeking planning permission to build new sites or expand existing ones.

Opencast mining generally takes place in former deep coal mining areas, on derelict slag heaps or agricultural land. According to recent statistics, it provides almost half of UK coal.

The Newcastle University team, from the School of Population and Health Sciences, drew its conclusions from research carried out in four opencast mining areas in North East England. These are Amble in Northumberland, Great Lumley, and Evenwood and Ramshaw, in County Durham, and Herrington in Wearside.

They questioned a cross-section of parents from all four communities about their health and environmental risk perceptions in relation to the mines.

They found that, although many parents were initially concerned about risks to their children’s respiratory health from air pollution, many of their worries were not realised. In fact, a separate study of children’s health carried out in the same localities showed that there were no links between dust levels from the mine and asthma, although GPs saw an larger number of children for respiratory consultations.

However, many parents had spoken of their anxieties during the planning stage but felt they had been fobbed off by the opencast companies. Families were given official evidence from existing sites which showed there were no links with childhood asthma, but they did not trust the statistics and continued to be concerned. Mainly, they wanted to know how their proposed site would specifically affect their locality.

Interviews also revealed that families did not view the results from the health study of their communities as sufficient evidence with which to reassure people from elsewhere.

This suggested, say the Newcastle University researchers, that proposals for new opencast mines are always likely to be opposed by locals who will treat companies with suspicion until they are proved wrong. It is therefore in the companies’ interest to act early on to allay residents’ fears.

Several companies have already demonstrated good practice in community public relations, say the researchers. Some set up community liaison groups at the planning stage. Another installed a monitor that measured dust levels in the atmosphere – residents were encouraged to ring a hotline when readings gave cause for concern. Another company provided play equipment for the local school.

Dr Suzanne Moffatt, of Newcastle University’s School of Population and Health Sciences, who carried out the research, said:

“People naturally fear the worst when something like a big opencast mining company comes along and threatens to drastically alter their environment, and they expect their worries to be taken seriously.

“Evidence from other areas does not usually take account of specific local or individual factors which can, as people likely reason, make all the difference.”

Dr Tanja Pless-Mulloli, a research collaborator, also from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, added: “We’re not saying that people can be easily bought. However, many companies can spend up to 20 years working in a locality, so building good relationships with residents is in their interest. They may get a slightly easier life as a result.”

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