Gold in Them Their Hills; Tyndrum Mining and the Environment

Originally Published 9/11/2011

The UK has designated more of it’s landscape as national parks than almost any other nation on Earth with 8.2% classified as such, the figure for England and Wales is even higher at 12.5%. Within Europe only in Iceland (12.1%) do national parks cover a greater land area; for comparison the figures for the US and Canada are 2.2 and 3.8% respectively. The corresponding population densities (people per square km) are: UK = 259 (England 395), US 32, Canada 3.4, and Iceland 3.1. 


The corollary of these two figures is that in the UK people have an almost unrivaled ease of access to our protected landscapes, although this is less true in Scotland where there are only two national parks.

Living in Leeds and given good traffic I live within about two hours drive of six national parks. In trying to illustrate just how popular NP’s are in the UK I tried to get some info on visitor numbers. However working out worldwide national park popularity is difficult and Google is of very little help, it is also unclear if figures refer to visitors or visitor days. By some counts The Lake District is thought to be the second most visited national park in the world after Mount Fuji in Japan (this stat is also claimed by the Peak). Twenty three million visitor days and 15 million visitors flock to the Lakes each year, arguably more than visit the top four national parks in the US combined (Great Smokey Mountains 9.4 million, Grand Canyon 4.4 million, Yosemite 3.5 million and Yellowstone 3.2 million). Whatever the true figures the data shows as a nation we value and use our national parks.

People + landscape = conflict, and a difficult challenge for our parks.  In many countries parks are owned by the government and comprise truly wild natural landscape protected from almost any development. In the UK this just isn’t possible, firstly our landscapes have been shaped by man over millennia and no “natural” landscape still exists in the UK. Secondly our national parks are home to tens of thousands of people; people who have the right to live and work is a society with all the convenience and services of those living outside the park. As such UK parks are not static but have sustainable development and a socio-ecconomic responsibility written into their constitutions alongside protection of the environment. 


The recently approved planning application to re-open a gold mine at Cononish near Tyndrum at the northern end of the Loch Lomond National Park saw these two responsibilities cast is sharp contrast.  Speaking broadly the mine was supported by almost the entire village which has very little local employment, but was opposed by many outdoor enthusiasts from Scotland and the wider UK as a desecration of the landscape.


I have every sympathy for the villagers; I spent a week in Tyndrum in Febuary 2010 and was struck by the lack of facilities in the area. I had gone up for some winter walking and easy climbing. Villagers complained that tourists tended to pass straight through making any business relying on them a struggle. The mine hopefully offers good quality jobs for the locals enabling them to stay in the village and not be forced out turning the village into a collection of second homes with no community.  With the lack of alternative employment there is a clear socio-ecconomic need for the mine (although there are arguments about how long the mine will opperate and how many jobs it will create.)

The issue at Tyndrum was not so much the mine as the tailings facility that results from processing the extracted material; this facility could eventually contain up to 400,000 tonnes of material. The structure will comprise a slurry lagoon contained within earth works and it was the visual impact of this that lead to the rejection of earlier planning applications. The company involved  undertook a re-design the facility so that it blends in to the landscape as much as possible and it was these changes that eventually got the project approval. I don’t actually see the visual effect as a long term issue and am reasonably confident that the facility can be constructed and shielded with native woodland to create a minimal effect on the landscape.

My worries are different, and I have a bit of inside knowledge as I work in contaminated land remediation (although these are my personal views); tailings can be quite difficult to manage and can contain heavy metals and elevated pH values all capable of leaching to the surrounding environment via groundwater. I also know that companies are never as good at not contaminating land as they say they are going to be, that contaminated land is very difficult and costly to remediate and that it is never remediated back to pristine conditions. It is actually quite hard to get land designated as contaminated as you need to demonstrate “significant possibility of significant harm (SPOSH)” which is actually quite a high hurdle to clear especially once the lawyers get their teeth into the word significant.

The planning conditions include monitoring the groundwater down gradient of the facility befoure during and after the operation of the mine, but the after care project only lasts for 20  years. The tailings facility or landfill because that is what it actually is must be stable for hundreds if not thousands of years after the mine closes. The metals are not a risk to the environment whilst contained within the structure but I’m concerned how durable the structure will be over time given the environment it is in. Then there is the possibility of catastrophic failures of the tailings facility, these are not unknown there was one last year and it will cost tens of millions of dollars to clean up. Do we really even want the chance of this happening in a national park.

A catastrophic failure of the dam wall lead to 1 million cubic meters of mud spilling into the environment.

The sad thing is there really should be an alternative to the mine; Tyndrum is a brilliant location to explore a huge number of brilliant hills, Ben Lui, Beinn Dorian to name just two.   It really should be a great base for tourists to explore the area, a much better alternative would be for those of us who spend time in the outdoors to support local economies a bit better. If people stopped in Tyndrum and it had a thriving local tourist economy I do not think the mine would have got planning permission as there would be no socio-ecconomic driver and possibly no local desire for it anyway.

I’m guilty as anyone, many days I’ve been out in the hills and not spent a penny in the village where I started my walk or I’ve stocked up at the supermarket on the way rather than use local shops. We can all put together arguments about levels of cost and choice about why we behave in this way but the result is this, communities dying and turning away from tourism. The national parks decision to grant the planning permission for the mine was probably the right one within the framework of the legislation and the national parks remit, it’s just a shame we could not help create a vibrent community without it.