It’s one of the first really hot days of the year, and I go to join the walkers, cyclists and horse riders in the Bissoe Valley Nature Reserve. In the perfectly still air, a juvenile buzzard is learning to catch thermal currents, but hasn’t got the hang of it and is soon heckled by jackdaws. The rest of the buzzard’s family is looping round the railway viaduct, unperturbed.
I walk north along the wide, smooth track, following the Carnon River. I think it is a former mineral tramway. Groups of cyclists pass me. They range from serious, Lycra-clad clubs, silent except for the hum of their tyres, to dads teaching daughters to pull skids. The flat valley is covered in furze. Sharp yellow gorse flowers clash with heather’s leaves, bright orange due to the acidity of the soil. The river itself is lined by signs warning the unwary to keep to the path and avoid the deep water and unstable banks. In places, the river is only a foot wide, but looks at least five feet deep, cut straight down into the soft earth.
After checking that I’m not being observed by any easily influenced children, I kneel down on the bank, peering in. This is what I’ve come looking for; the bank is coated with a thick layer of rusty silt. I reach in to touch it. It isn’t the clay slime I’d expected, but more like the consistency of curdled milk. Off-milk in strong tea. In 1992 there was a high profile scandal following the ‘water pollution event’ that caused this sludging. In 1991, the government withdrew its subsidy from the uneconomic tin mine further up-river. The mine extended about 450m below ground, and needed constant pumping to keep it workable. When the mine closed, the pumping stopped. The National Rivers Authority was aware that the mine was in danger of flooding, but couldn’t decide what to do about it other than monitor the rising water levels. The months passed. Their inaction led to a European Commission ‘probe’ into the handling of what newspapers described as a ‘pollution time bomb’. Looking back at newspaper clippings from the time, this has the bizarre appearance of being an inquiry into a disaster that hadn’t yet occurred. Despite their prescience, the added level of bureaucracy failed to come up with a solution to the impending problem.
Only weeks before the event, the NRA brought in environmental consultants. They claimed to be ‘switching the emphasis of our operations from the short term to the longer term…we are not ruling anything in or out’. Within the month, a plugged adit burst, and 50 million litres of metal-laden water flooded into the Carnon River.
When the mine water mixed with the fresh water in the river, iron oxides and hydroxides were precipitated to form an orange plume that was carried down to Restronguet Creek and into the Carrick Roads. The coastal communities were understandably outraged. Not only did about 200 local houses source water from boreholes that they feared may be contaminated, but with a recession in full blow and the economy more and more dependent upon tourism, worries about the marine environment were much more than merely conservationist. National newspapers did little to allay their fears:
A blood-red river of death flows from a disused tin mine destroying the beauty of a Cornish river. Scientists claim the discharge may have already worked its way into the food chain. But they say we won’t be sure until its [sic] too late – by then humans and animals could be suffering the horrific consequences. (Today, Friday January 17th 1992)
Local newspapers were less sensational. Under the headline “MP Matthew Eats Oyster from Disaster Area”, a local politician attempted to calm fears about the level of contamination that could have occurred when the plume flowed over 4000 acres of oyster beds. However, this did not stop the famous Pandora Inn from launching an advertising campaign to reassure potential customers that none of its seafood came from from local suppliers.
With pressure coming from the public, local councils, MPs and the European Commission, the NRA finally took action. Within a year they had set up a water treatment system consisting of a passive reed bed array and an active ‘high density sludge alkali dosing plant.’ Now the situation is under control, the passive system has been decommissioned and the site re-landscaped, creating the nature reserve I am walking through. A few years ago the Environment Agency created some artificial ponds around the reserve, to encourage rare species to the unique, post-industrial landscape. Signs tell me I should look out for the scarce blue-tailed damselfly. Granite boulders were salvaged and used to create what the Environment Agency thought a Cornish Dans Maen stone circle looked like. In 2009 the reserve was awarded a ‘Green Apple Award’ for environmental best practice and sustainable development.
I continue down the path to the viaduct. There’s an information board telling me how when the 69 foot granite towers were built in the nineteenth century, the engineers had to dig through 20 feet of mining waste before reaching solid ground. As long ago as the 15th century, Henry VIII tried to legislate to prevent the silting up of the harbour at Devoran, a few miles downstream. Devoran was still Cornwall’s busiest harbour in the early nineteenth century, before finally succumbing to the silt. Mining has been going on here so long that the miners have played a role of geological significance, waste deposits altering waterways like glacial effluvia. The local environment has adapted to the presence of industrial waste so thoroughly that it represents a natural process in local ecology. The Wheal Jane disaster (which, it later turned out, caused little biological damage despite its visual impact) was unusual in the speed and amount of silt released, but even more unusual was the response: the pollution was actually tackled. The passive reed bed system took advantage of how ecosystems had already developed methods of dealing with this kind of industrial waste. They took a natural solution and make it more efficient through intelligent design.
These are the thoughts that I work through as I continue up the river. I almost decide that I’ve seen enough, that the story of such an unusual symbiosis between nature and industry is enough for one essay. I can pad it out looking for butterflies. But I feel I ought to see the mineshafts.
I leave the valley bottom at the village of Brissoe and head up the road towards Wheal Jane. Smallholders have reclaimed local run-down light manufacturing and commercial premises. Chickens and pigs are slowly reconditioning the car parks. Needless to say, walking up the country lane with its 60mph traffic that doesn’t expect to encounter pedestrians feels significantly more dangerous than straying onto the Carnon River’s unstable banks. Behind me a view of the valley opens out, and I follow the progress of a group of cyclists along the old tramway. I turn a corner and this view disappears. It’s then I get my first glimpse of the rest of the Wheal Jane mine. Partially concealed behind a blossoming blackthorn hedge is a ziggurat of spoil, so tall that the road that spirals up it could be a marble run.
At the top of the hill I leave the road down a narrow path, almost a tunnel through gorse scrub, under six-armed pylons. The air is thick with coconut, the clucking of a contented crow, and distant lambs. I come over the brow of the hill and rest on an old dry stone wall. From here I can survey the active water treatment plant, which has taken over from the decommissioned reed beds, and beside it, a Wimbledon of regular, rectangular tailing ponds.
The treatment plant itself is relatively small, a modest cubist experiment veiled behind a lacework of pipes, churning with generic industrial noise. Beside the plant, stretching for what I estimate to be over a kilometre, the tailing ponds seem all out of proportion. They are a rainbow of red and brown. Rust, bracken, and old tea. I had thought the passive treatment ponds down on the valley floor were large, but compared to the acreage of lakes here, they were a garden water feature.
An ambitious plan has been put together to transform the area into ‘an environmentally pioneering business park’. The Wheal Jane Sustainability Project aims to attract ‘knowledge-based industry’ to its environmentally friendly premises, and power it with green energy projects, including a wind turbine, a biomass boiler, and a micro-hydro system that will run off the water pumped to the surface from the mines below. The project claims it will attract £1 billion of investment to the area. Planning permission has been granted to build a solar farm on some of the land, but the ‘latest news’ on the Project’s website is from almost a year ago. For now seagulls flock over the toxic lakes, worried by crows and buzzards.
I almost forget that I wanted to see the mineshafts, until I catch a glimpse of one a little way down the hill. I jump a gate to go and explore. It is surrounded by ten strings of barbed wire and covered with a thick metal grille. The barbed wire is broken in one place so I can learn over and drop a stone. I hear it bouncing down the shaft, hitting one side then the other, getting quieter and quieter until I can no longer distinguish between the stone and its echo.