A COMPANY which could create up to 500 jobs extracting zinc from Teesdale lead mining heartland says it is excited at the prospect of bringing the process back to its illustrious roots.

Bosses at Minco are looking into plans to build a mine in moorland on the County Durham and Northumberland border, between Allenheads, near Stanhope, and Nenthead, in Cumbria.

Tests have shown the North Pennine Orefield area, which was once home to a number of lead mines dating back to the Roman era, could yield some of the largest zinc deposits in Europe.

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The North Pennine lead field was the UK's most important lead producer between 1750 and 1850, employing thousands of men across Teesdale, Weardale, South Tynedale and the Derwent valley.

Minco, who have searched for zinc in Ireland, say the Teesdale development has the potential to be a world-class operation, producing a million tonnes a year, and becoming the area's major employer.

Rowan Maule, Minco's executive director, said a mine could be developed within six years, but said no plans were definite and that the company was simply drilling boreholes to assess if any move was viable.

He said: “This is an exploratory dig, we are not mining, and there isn't going to be a mine spring up in the next six weeks.

“This process is not like building a Tesco and getting planning permission, we have to find out what is there, its volume and whether that is significantly strong enough for us to move on to the next phase.

“It is a very big area and there is a lot of zinc down there, you only have to look at the amount of lead that has come out of there since Roman times.

“It could be a world-class area because it was just that with the lead, and the ratio of zinc to lead is very high, so these are exciting times for us.

“This is an important mining area because of its history and if our initial work proves sufficiently that a mine could operate there, it would be very good for the economy and create good and well-paid jobs.”

Mr Maule said the firm was now working on its seventh test borehole, and allayed worries any prospective mine could damage the environment.

He said: “Any mine wouldn't change the character of the area, it would be underground and a bit like driving into a big tunnel.

“There would be discreet vents and fans and the waste products, which would once have been dumped in heaps, would go back underground.

“This could be massive, but there is still a long way to go.”