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Back off the black list The North East's coal-scarred coastline is set to reveal its good side following decades of displaying only the bad and ugly. David Hayward reports from county Durham.

Durham's notorious black beaches - smothered for a century beneath 100Mt of colliery spoil - are being transformed into a national nature reserve planned to be attractive to the same degree as it has been unattractive.

And the beauty of the five year scheme, now half way through, is that nature itself is doing most of the work.

By 2001, the harsh North Sea should, on its own, have washed away a sufficient depth of the blackened sand to encourage the return of the region's rarest species - tourists. And, as a helping hand, a £10M clean up project, part funded by a Millennium Commission grant and involving over 70 different initiatives, will ensure that the visitors can rediscover the coastline's other equally rare assets, last seen by their Victorian predecessors.

'We hope to attract up to 300,000 more tourists a year,' says Ray Leonard, project manager for the Durham County Council-led Turning the Tide programme. 'But with equal importance, we also aim to rekindle in local inhabitants a sense of pride and enthusiasm for their rejuvenated coastline.'

Since the 1870s some seven large beaches along an 18km coastline, stretching from Seaham south to Hartlepool, have been a site for only one activity.

Half a dozen coastal coal mines, for generations the economic mainstay of the region, saw the beach as a convenient and cheap solution to the disposal of colliery waste. Every year vast bucket conveyors spewed up to 2.5Mt of polluted spoil and liquid coal washings directly onto the sand.

Every metre of the beach became contaminated and discoloured to a considerable depth, while the seabed was equally blanketed. For most of this century, there has been little life either on or offshore.

Increasing environmental awareness of the pollution problem during the 1960s was successfully countered by the then National Coal Board's argument that expensive tipping elsewhere would damage the region's largest employer. The absence of any polluter pays legislation, or genuine cash-backed interest from outside the region, left ambitious cleanup schemes as no more than drawing board sketches (NCE 1 November 1979, for serious NCE hoarders).

The real rescue plan arrived dramatically in the 1980s, disguised ironically as also the region's worst economic disaster. Closure of all six coastal pits in as many years may have decimated the local social fabric but it did at least stop the tipping.

When the last pit, Easington Colliery, closed in 1993, the legacy was an up to 7m thick sloping blanket of compacted mine waste overlaying the beaches' 1870s pretipping profile. An unknown depth of sand beneath the waste was also contaminated and the steep profiled beach was in some places six times its original width.

Consultants were brought in to devise sand removal schemes - barging the sand to offshore dumps, or transporting it by lorry to inland sites were the main options considered. All were expensive - they required complex cliff protection or sand replacement to prevent coastal erosion and could in themselves have created temporary environmental damage.

'We were near certain not to get a licence to dump offshore, while the environmental impact of thousands of lorry movements could have been severe,' recalls Leonard.

Fortunately neither option had to be developed as the clean up campaign soon received a second cost-free bonus.

Those same consultants had predicted that, with the end of tipping, the sea would itself start washing away the damage. This mechanism, though complex, was well understood but the speed of sand erosion was little more than a guess.

The local wave regime is regarded as 'steep', with consequent considerable drawdown of the raised beach. This involves the waves slicing away the up to 2m high near-vertical wall of sand formed at high water. Accompanying top slicing of the adjacent sloping beach, and a general southward offshore current, means that an estimated 80% of the contaminated sand should eventually be washed out to sea.

Five years on from the last tipping, the indications are that even the most optimistic early estimates are being exceeded. Consultant Babtie reported in 1995 that this sand wall was eroding at an average 20m a year, with some beaches witnessing double that rate.

And, assuming this rate will slow considerably after several years, the raised sections of some beaches could be completely removed in 15- 20 years.

Follow up detailed analysis has yet to take place but, says Leonard, observation suggests current erosion rates are even faster. No one is predicting that golden sand will be the norm in five years or even ten - and some beaches could take 50 years to recover totally - but already the lighter coloured top layers are improving the view.

Although nature is doing most of the hard work, money will be needed for additional measures, such as removal of rubbish tips and development of tourist facilities. Management of the coastline, especially once the sea has removed the spoil which is currently protecting the cliffs, will require funding too.

The battle for cash has also brightened and last year campaigners finally found a funding source - the National Lottery. The £4.5M Millennium Commission award is being matched by a dozen other sources, principally Durham County and Easington District Councils, English Partnerships, the Countryside Commission, the National Trust and the European Union through specific aid for mining regions.

As a back up to nature's clean up, a feasibility study will start this summer into the possibility of physically removing all contaminated sand from one of the smaller beaches and replacing it with imported material dredged perhaps from a nearby harbour. Also about to start is a major clean up of beach debris, some of it washed ashore but mostly discarded rubbish from the mines which is increasingly reappearing through the eroding sand.

At present, the only planned physical removal of colliery spoil is from two large waste dumps forming part of the cliff face itself at two beaches. If left alone they would slowly erode and recontaminate the sand.

A 600,000t pile at Horden has already been dug up and encapsulated beneath a boulder clay blanket over the newly cleared site of the colliery itself.

Later this month a similar £3M muckshift will start at Easington beach to remove an equally large dump and spread it over the other colliery site.

As the raised beach erodes, so its width narrows again dramatically. Some are already just half the width they were shortly before tipping stopped.

So the downside of leaving the clean up to nature is that, sooner or later, the near vertical 20m high magnesian limestone cliffs - robbed of their beach protection at the toe - will themselves start to erode.

This will threaten one of the coastline's as yet unmarketed main 'attractions'. A sizeable section of the cliff face, plus a narrow tract of land along the top, contains over 90% of the UK's paramaritime limestone grasslands. This protected greenery boasts over 20 rare species of grass and fauna and provides the only UK habitat for the very rare Argos butterfly.

A major plank of the current programme is to purchase wider tracts of currently agricultural land immediately behind the cliffs and convert them to grassland by replanting with local seed. This managed retreat zone will replace any grassland eventually lost through erosion.

Other initiatives include a detailed marine survey; a 27km network of cycle tracks formed from old mineral rail lines and an uninterrupted cliff top path.

Car parks are being developed, although not extensively, as Leonard has no intention of reintroducing any man made pollution. 'The car is suitable as access to some areas,' he says. 'But we are deliberately leaving sections less easy to reach by road to allow our visitors to enjoy the region's more rugged inaccessible coastline.'

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