Metal mining has played a significant role in Britain’s history, and although almost all the mines closed 100 years ago, abandoned mines are still the largest source of metals to our rivers and seas.  In England, around 1,500km of rivers are polluted, which can harm aquatic wildlife and have a negative impact on economic activity.  

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) established the Water and Abandoned Metal Mines (WAMM) programme in 2011, in partnership with the Coal Authority and the Environment Agency, to clean up rivers polluted by historical metal mining. The WAMM Programme operates four mine water schemes which treat around 7.4 billion litres of contaminated groundwater each year, preventing about 600 tonnes of metals from polluting rivers. To find out more, please watch a short video at  

In 2023, Parliament adopted a statutory metal mines target, under the Environment Act 2021, to halve the length of English rivers polluted by harmful metals from abandoned metal mines by 2038. This covers pollution by lead, cadmium, zinc, nickel, copper and arsenic. The Government’s Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP), published in January 2023, estimated that to achieve this long-term target would likely require around 40 new mine water treatment schemes and a similar number of diffuse interventions. The EIP set a non-statutory interim target to construct 8 mine water treatment schemes and 20 diffuse interventions by 31 January 2028. 

The WAMM Programme has already constructed a treatment scheme at the former Force Crag mine, near Keswick, in partnership with the National Trust. This has been successfully removing metals for the past decade. To read more about this scheme visit   

Figure 1. The treatment ponds at the former Force Crag mine in Coledale Beck (picture © John Malley, used with permission).