A DEVELOPMENT aiming to extract millions of tonnes of zinc from former Roman lead mines is set to gain fresh impetus, The Northern Echo can reveal.

Minco says tests across the County Durham and Northumberland border, between Allenheads, near Stanhope, and Nenthead, in Cumbria, have been extremely encouraging.

The firm is now undertaking further work in Northumberland, which it believes harbours deeper zinc deposits left behind by generations of lead miners.

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The company began testing last year, and said the project, known as the North Pennine Orefield Development, could hold some of the largest amounts of zinc in Europe.

Bosses added it could eventually create up to 500 new jobs, with workers mining a million tonnes of zinc every year.

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.

Rowan Maule, Minco non-executive director, said it will continue carrying out test drilling for up to two years to gain further results, but said it was buoyed by its early findings.

He said: “Our tests are giving us a picture of what is there and that picture will only get even clearer over time.

“However, what is encouraging is that we know there is a lot of zinc in this area.

“They were mining lead in the region right from Roman times but not as much zinc, so the potential is very high.

“We have a halo of zinc around previous workings and are now identifying zones where more drilling may be needed to establish estimates of potential resources.

“It is very encouraging and also exciting to move into the next phase in Northumberland, which is a move into the heart of zinc country.

“Northumberland is a zinc rich area, we have already had success in our previous drillings, but this should be better.”

Mr Maule said he hoped Minco, which has also searched for zinc in Ireland, could help return mining back to a region renowned for the industry.

He said: “This could be a world-class area, and is an important mining area because of its history.

“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."