As we enter the new millennium – and many of us are heartily sick of hearing about it before it starts – there is little doubt that concern over the environment is at a level never seen before. Quite rightly, most people around the world realise that the practices which have been common during the past 200 years of industrial development cannot be allowed to continue unrestrained.

Thankfully, the tunnelling industry can at least claim to be environmentally ‘friendly’ if not completely without impact on our surroundings.

Whatever problems hydroelectric power stations cause, they do not produce acid rain or radioactive waste. Ask any representative body which form of construction it would prefer for a river crossing, rail line or road link and the underground option will usually win out. Likewise, water supply, sewers and pipelines are best placed underground, with new microtunnelling techniques enabling their unobtrusive construction in urban situations.

All well and good, but we face the real danger that the pendulum is swinging too far in the other direction when activists with unrealistic expectations are prepared to use ‘green’ issues as a stick to beat their opponents.

A perfect example is the protracted story of the Semmering Base Tunnel in Austria (see page 6). While few would argue against the logic of transferring trans-European road freight to an efficient rail network, this scheme was halted by the Green Party in Lower Austria. A higher court has now overturned this ruling but has given control of environmental matters to that same provincial authority. With ‘the lunatics now in control of the asylum’, the whole process has been sent back to the beginning, with demands for new environmental reports.

At the start of 1990, T&T International predicted: "Tunnelling solutions, while not necessarily the cheapest at first sight, will find increasing favour as environmental issues come to dominate the political scene in the next decade." Without a little realism, this confidence may prove increasingly misplaced as we move into the 21st century.