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The contribution of science to risk-based decision-making: Lessons from the development of full-scale treatment measures for acidic mine waters at Wheal Jane, UK

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Paul Younger


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The use of risk-based decision-making in environmental management is often assumed to rely primarily on the availability of robust scientific data and insights, while in practice socio-economic criteria are often of considerable importance. However, the relative contributions to decision-making made by scientific and socio-economic inputs are rarely assessed, and even less commonly reported. Such an assessment has been made for a major remediation project in southwest England, in which some 300 l/s of highly acidic, metalliferous mine waters are now being treated using oxidation and chemical neutralisation. In the process of reaching the decision to commission the treatment plant, a wide range of scientific studies were undertaken, including: biological impact assessments, hydrogeological investigations of the effect of pumping on the flooded mine system, and hydrological and geochemical characterisation, together with integrated catchment modelling, of pollutant sources and pathways. These investigations revealed that, despite the spectacular nature of the original mine water outburst in 1992, the ecology of the Fal estuary remains remarkably robust. No scientific evidence emerged of any grounds for concern over the estuarine ecology, even if mine water were left to flow untreated. However, a rare ecological resource known as "maerl" (a form of calcified seaweed) is harvested annually in the estuary, providing significant revenue to the local economy and underpinning the 'clean' image of local sea water. Social and environmental benefit surveys revealed strong public perceptions that any visible discoloration in the estuary must indicate a diminution in quality of the maerl, to the detriment of both the public image and economy of the area. This factor proved sufficient to justify the continued pump-and-treat operations at the mine site. Although the decisive factor in the end was socio-economic in nature, robust assessment of this factor could not have been made without robust scientific evidence. It is concluded that investment in investigating and contributing to the formation of public perceptions is just as important as investing in scientific investigations per se. © 2004 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Younger PL, Coulton RH, Froggatt EC

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Science of the Total Environment

Year: 2005

Volume: 338

Issue: 1-2

Pages: 137-154

ISSN (print): 0048-9697

ISSN (electronic):

Publisher: Elsevier BV


DOI: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2004.09.014

PubMed id: 15680634


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