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Managing the Impact of Historical Mining on Today's Water Infrastructure Planning

January 23, 2024

In the UK, the remnants of our mining past present a complex set of challenges for the water industry. Planning new projects around intricate underground mining networks will become more prevalent as the water industry works towards upgrading legacy water systems for AMP8.  

This blog sheds light on these challenges, sharing insights on how Ground Investigation teams harness data to better plan and develop new infrastructure.

Source: Coal Authority

The Impact of Mining on Water Infrastructure Planning

The UK's extensive mining activities have left a legacy that continues to challenge water infrastructure projects. Ground investigation teams play a pivotal role in understanding the subsurface conditions, enabling the water industry to make strategic decisions, mitigate risks, and enhance the resilience of water infrastructure. These teams must work closely with Coal Authority data to provide an oversight of past coal mining. 

Building in the proximity of mines presents significant challenges and risks to both development and the local community if not managed properly. To safely build in such delicate zones demands expertly designed and approved engineering solutions to address safety and environmental risk factors, including issues related to gas and mine water.

Subsidence, a common consequence of mining activities, poses significant risks to the stability and integrity of water infrastructure. It can lead to mining gas leaks, groundwater contamination, mine collapse, houses destroyed, and sinkholes. Furthermore, abandoned mines can lead to water contamination, which impacts both the environment and public health.

In response, Ground Investigation teams require legacy files, leveraging data from the Coal Authority, to gain crucial insights into subsurface conditions. Planning teams use this data for better risk evaluation, design planning and assessment of ground stability and potential contamination. 

What is Coal Authority Data

Coal Authority data encompasses a wealth of information related to past and present coal mining activities. This data is instrumental in identifying potential risks and impacts associated with historical mining sites, including subsidence, water contamination, and land stability issues.

The data is integrated into infrastructure planning to create a full understanding of the potential risks and challenges posed. Obtaining approval from The Coal Authority Permissions Service is mandatory for major utility works in mining areas. This service also monitors the implementation process to ensure public safety. In cases where damages occur due to non-compliance with these policies, the Coal Authority holds the right to recover any costs incurred. The accountability for damages extends for 12 years.

The challenges of utilising Coal Authority data

Navigating the complexities of subsurface data presents a significant hurdle in the water industry. While historical data is invaluable, it is often difficult to understand and interoperable. Scans of legacy documents, Coal Authority data, boreholes, and historic landfill data tend to sit in different systems and repositories which are difficult to bring together to create one holistic site view.

Even when the data has been collated, it needs to be put into the context of the real world, alongside proposed plans. Overlaying over maps or designs is inadequate for the scale and complexity of decisions involving multi-million-pound investments.

This lack of integration between historical data and contemporary planning tools can lead to significant project setbacks. The inability to contextualise historical data within modern design frameworks is not just a matter of convenience but a critical factor in project viability. In the absence of a clear and accurate understanding of the subsurface environment, water infrastructure projects face increased risks of encountering unforeseen obstacles. These could range from structural instabilities due to subsidence to unexpected environmental remediation needs, each capable of derailing project timelines and inflating budgets dramatically.

It’s not unusual for teams to invest considerable time and resources in developing designs that, due to a lack of visibility into subsurface conditions affected by past mining activities, may turn out to be unfeasible, or delivered late and over budget. This disconnection can result in years of work being rendered obsolete, as plans have to be revised or abandoned altogether when these crucial factors are not considered from the outset.

Innovative Solutions and New Technologies Supporting Planning Teams

Ground Engineering professionals are adopting a more sophisticated and integrated approach to planning. Merely having access to files falls short of addressing the complexities of modern water infrastructure planning. Teams are leveraging advanced geospatial 3D visualisation technologies, like Sensat’s, to increase the precision of their planning.

These state-of-the-art geospatial visualisation tools are transformative. For the first time, Ground Engineering teams are integrating and navigating vast quantities of data in software that can handle large data sets. This integration includes not only design plans and contextual real-world data but also extends to existing utility networks and crucial information from the Coal Authority. The capability to navigate and assess these diverse data sets in a unified visual environment marks a significant advancement in minimising risk in planning.

These innovative tools facilitate a comprehensive and detailed visualisation of subsurface conditions, which is essential for effective planning and managing water infrastructure. By mapping historical mining activities right from the project’s inception, teams can proactively identify areas prone to subsidence, enabling them to design infrastructure that is both resilient and well-informed. Furthermore, this approach aids in pinpointing potential contamination sources from old mining operations, allowing for strategic measures to be implemented to protect water quality.

This integrated and technologically advanced approach is revolutionising how water infrastructure projects are conceived and executed, ensuring that decisions are based on a thorough understanding of both historical legacies and current realities.

The future of water planning

As we enter the AMP8 period, more and more infrastructure teams are looking to upgrade their existing infrastructure to align with the ambitious goals of AMP8 Therefore adopting processes and technologies which will help teams to deliver thoroughly assessed plans will be a key in risk mitigation. This approach ensures that the investments made during this period are both sustainable and resilient, safeguarding the future of the UK's water infrastructure against the challenges of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. 

Today’s advancements in 3D visualisation are not just a technological triumph; they represent a paradigm shift in how the water industry approaches infrastructure design and planning. This era demands a heightened level of foresight and precision, where understanding the past is as crucial as planning for the future. 

As we progress through AMP8, it is clear that embracing these advanced tools and collaborative strategies will be key to successfully managing the legacy of the past and ensuring the efficiency and effectiveness of future water infrastructure projects.

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