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Last Updated: Monday, 27 October, 2003, 12:28 GMT
Opencast health risks 'unfounded'
Stobswood opencast mine
Millions of tonnes of coal is mined from opencast sites
The majority of health risk fears from opencast mining operations are unfounded, new research shows.

But coal firms need to do more to allay the concerns of communities over feared conditions such as asthma, according to a study from Newcastle University.

The research, published in the journal, Social Science and Medicine, says most new and existing opencast sites face opposition because of fears for the health of children.

Experts from the university's School of Population and Health Sciences, talked to families in four opencast mining areas in the north-east of England - Amble in Northumberland; Great Lumley, Evenwood and Ramshaw, in County Durham, and Herrington near Sunderland.

They questioned a cross-section of parents about their health and perceptions in relation to the mines.

They found that, although many parents were initially concerned about the potential risks to their children's health from coal dust, many of their worries were not realised.

People naturally fear the worst when something like a big opencast mining company comes along
Dr Suzanne Moffatt, Newcastle University
A separate study of children's health carried out in the same communities showed there were no links between dust levels from the mine and asthma.

Researchers say many parents had spoken of their anxieties at the planning stage of proposed opencast sites, but felt they had been fobbed off by mining companies.

Families said they 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.

The research team says mining companies must do more to gain the confidence of communities and not "just turn up at public meetings."

Dr Suzanne Moffatt, who headed the team, 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.

'Good relationships'

"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."

Fellow team member Dr Tanja Pless-Mulloli, added: "We are 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."

A spokesman for Northumberland-based UK Coal, which employs more than 1,000 at opencast sites in the North East, welcomed the study.

He said: "We think this research supports our understanding of the situation regarding health risks from opencast sites.

"We also hope communities where we have operations will be comforted by what has been found.

"Of course, more can always be done and we will look in detail at the research findings."

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