How do the residents of former metal mining areas value this heritage?

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By Danni Sinnett (Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments) and Margarida Sardo (Science Communication Unit).

There are around 5,000 former metal mines in England and Wales, and many hundreds of thousands globally. Many of these mines have a legacy of highly polluted wastes, which can pose a risk to water quality and human health. As metal supplies diminish and new sources of metals are needed, especially for use in smart technologies, the potential to extract metals from these mine wastes is being examined. However, they often support important habitats and species assemblages, or are important for their historical significance. For example, around 20% of former metal mines are associated with Sites of Special Scientific Interest, around 14% are protected by European designations including in the lead mining areas in the Pennines and North Wales, and the tin-copper mines of Cornwall. Around 15% of former metal mines in England are in a World Heritage Site including the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape (Sinnett, 2018).

Wheal Maid mine Cornwall

Much of the research and policy concerned with the management of abandoned mine wastes is focussed on environmental protection, landscape quality and the need to balance this with the conservation of nature and, to a lesser extent, heritage. In recent years there have also be a number of studies examining the motivation and preferences of those visiting restored mineral extraction sites.

However, there has been very little research on how local residents value their mining heritage and their preferences for its long-term management. This is important as it is ultimately local people who are affected by both the positive and negative impacts of this legacy, as well as any changes to the status quo. It is also essential to ensure that local people are supportive of any plans for the management of the sites. Understanding their preferences and concerns can inform this process.

We undertook some research with residents of former mining areas to address this gap in our understanding. Specifically, we explored the following questions: how do those living in former metal mining landscapes value them in terms of aesthetic appearance, role in preserving cultural heritage, nature conservation and tourism? What are the preferred options for managing abandoned metal mines?

We used the Q Method to examine the preferences of those living in six areas of metal mining in England and Wales. Q Method allows participants to ‘sort’ a series of statements based on the degree to which the statement represents their perspective on a subject. We selected a set of statements from the academic literature, policy and articles in local press. They covered a range of opinions and options on the mining legacy and its management.

Our analysis revealed five perspectives:

  • Preservationists want to maintain the status quo, and recognise the value of the mining landscape for its industrial heritage and nature conservation. They want former mine sites to be left alone, and protected, primarily for their heritage value.
  • Environmentalists are more motivated by water quality and pollution mitigation. They feel that that mine wastes would benefit from vegetation establishment and recognise their contribution to nature conservation. They value the role of experts.
  • Industry supporters prioritise the local economy and are the most supportive of mineral extraction in general and the reworking of mine wastes, feeling that it would create jobs and bring in new people.
  • Nature enthusiasts prioritise vegetation establishment on mine sites. They recognise the contribution mine sites make, or could make, to nature conservation. They want to see the sites restored, feeling they should not be left as they are.
  • Landscape lovers are focussed on improving the aesthetic appearance of the mine wastes. They are most concerned with the impact of mines on the landscape, but are open to the idea of reworking the mines to aid the local economy.

There were also several areas of agreement:

  • All residents prioritised water quality to some degree, with environmentalists and landscape lovers in particular feeling very strongly that this should take precedence over heritage features and nature conservation.
  • They also felt that the preference of the people living locally should take be a priority in deciding the future of the post-mining landscape, with most disagreeing that the future management of mine waste should be expert-led.

In summary, we found that most residents view their mining heritage positively for the cultural and ecological benefits that it provides, but they are concerned about the adverse impact on water quality and the lack of vegetation on many sites. There may be some support for metal recovery from abandoned mines if it is combined with high quality restoration that mitigates water pollution and revegetates the sites, whilst preserving their cultural heritage. Residents must be part of the process – too many feel that landscape decisions are taken out of the hands of local communities and do not benefit them.

This work was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and Economic and Social Research Council through INSPIRE: IN Situ Processes In Resource Extraction from waste repositories; Grant number: NE/L013908/1.

You can read the papers from this research here:

Sinnett, D. (2019) Going to waste? The potential impacts on nature conservation and cultural heritage from resource recovery on former mineral extraction sites in England and Wales. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 62(7), 1227-1248. Available from https://uwe-repository.worktribe.com/output/852458.

Sinnett, D. E., & Sardo, A. M. (2020) Former metal mining landscapes in England and Wales: Five perspectives from local residents. Landscape and Urban Planning, 193. Available from https://uwe-repository.worktribe.com/output/3851958.

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