We’re restoring the River Keekle near Whitehaven in a £1.5 million project from 2019-20.

The river was lined with plastic in the 1990s. The plastic is breaking up and pieces are being washed downstream, creating blockages, localised flooding and plastic pollution. We plan to remove the plastic and restore the riverbed.

The issue

The River Keekle is a tributary of the Ehen located around 3 kilometres east of Whitehaven, in West Cumbria (grid ref. NY 00452 17651).

The river was heavily modified until the 1990s due to nearby coal mining. After mine spoil was buried across the site the river was lined with an HDPE plastic liner. This liner is failing and heavily degraded, posing a flood risk and potential catastrophic contamination issue for the Keekle, as well as the River Ehen which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation.

The scale of the problem

There is also concern that the river will vertically erode through the clay cap installed below the liner and expose ground water potentially mixed with mine waste that was buried in the 1990s, allowing heavy metals and chemicals to leach into the Keekle and further downstream. Whilst all of the EA’s sampling of water quality currently proves there is no contamination across the site, if nothing is done to stop erosion, there is a real possibility of the Keekle exposing mine waste in the future.

The Upper Keekle is also failing under the Water Framework Directive classification as a habitat for fish due to mining-related modifications. The modifications include the liner, bed-check weirs that washed out during floods in the 1990s, erratic boulder locations and areas where the plastic has broken up, creating barriers to natural fish migration.

What we’re doing

We plan to fully remove the plastic liner, which is installed in a 2.2 kilometre stretch of the river, and restore the riverbed. The project is split into two phases: 

  1. In summer 2019 we’re working at a 160 metre trial site between Walkmill Bridge and Keekle Bridge. In this phase we’ll test different methods of removing the plastic.
  2. In summer 2020 we’ll remove the plastic along the remaining 2.3 kilometres, with this phase planned based on our findings during phase 1.

We’re removing the liner from a small trial site first as no-one is quite sure of the state of the riverbed underneath the plastic. Once complete, we’ll have a much better understanding of the conditions and a proven methodology for removing the plastic in phase 2.

After removing the liner, cobbles, stone and gravel will be placed onto the riverbed in its place, re-naturalising the river and providing protection from vertical erosion. For phase 1 we can use stone already on site, but phase 2 element will involve importing thousands of tonnes of extra stone to replace the plastic.

The plastic liner will be cut up and removed from site. Tests during phase 1 will tell us if the plastic can be recycled. If possible, it will go to a recycling facility.

Project aims

Removing the failed plastic liner will reduce plastic pollution and localised flooding downstream.

The river will be left in a much more natural condition, improving the habitats for salmon, trout and other fish species. We’ll directly improve 2.5 kilometres of river and open up access for fish to the further 4 kilometres of river upstream as they are currently prevented from migrating by the plastic debris.

This project will also remove a threat to highly endangered freshwater mussels further downstream in the River Ehen. Currently, as the liner repeatedly fails, excess sediment is released into the Keekle which makes its way into the Ehen, posing a significant risk to the mussels.

Funders and partners

This is a major project which could not have happened without the generous support of our funders.

Phase 1 is funded by the Environment Agency’s River Restoration Programme. Phase 2 is funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development’s Water Environment Grant.