Dutch in policy retreat on contaminated land

In a major policy reversal, the Dutch Government has announced that it is dropping its "multi-functionality" approach to the remediation of contaminated land and tailoring clean-up standards to the intended uses of sites. Remediation priorities will also be driven more by redevelopment needs.

The Dutch multi-functionality approach, introduced under the Soil Protection Act in 1987, has featured prominently in the European debate on how far remediation of contaminated land should be pushed. The Dutch have set clean-up targets intended to make polluted soil fit for any use. Their approach has often been contrasted with UK policy, which is to clean up land only as far as necessary to make it suitable for the next intended use.

The Dutch Government has now had a major rethink. Its change of policy was announced by Environment Minister Margaretha de Boer at a meeting of a European working group on contaminated soil in Amsterdam on 29 May.

Efforts to determine the extent of soil contamination began in the Netherlands in the early 1980s. "We started with the idea that there were about 2,000 incidents in the country," the Minister said. The clean-up cost was estimated at US$500 million - and "even though this came as a shock" the target was set to clean up soil contamination within a generation.

In fact, the Netherlands has proved to have not 2,000 contaminated sites but 100,000. Estimated clean-up costs have risen to $50 billion - and are increasing by several million dollars per year as contaminants are dispersed in groundwater.

Spending on land remediation in the Netherlands is now running at around $500 million per year - the figure originally thought sufficient to clean up the entire problem, but which would now need to be sustained for a century to do so. About 70% of the total is contributed by the Government. "As the years go by," said Ms de Boer, "willingness is waning to contribute more to remediation of soil contamination in the past."

Announcing a "fundamental change of direction", the Minister said that the market will in future have to shoulder more of the financial burden, with the Government providing a safety net for very costly remedial works or where other funds cannot be found.

Reducing clean-up costs will be a key part of the new policy. Sounding the death knell for the multi-functionality approach, the Minister said that this will be done by "orienting remediation operations to a site's designated use and by preventing dispersal of contaminants into the groundwater."

A second key part of the strategy will be to integrate soil clean-up with economic development. According to Ms de Boer, "this means that soil remediation will become an integrated component of housing projects, the development of infrastructure and the renovation of industrial estates" - implying that few remediation projects will be carried out where redevelopment is not taking place.

The revised Dutch policy brings it close to the UK's approach of generally remediating land only as it comes up for redevelopment, and only to the standards required for the new development.

Ironically, official policy in the UK has come in for internal criticism recently. In last year's report on soil, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution said that the "suitable for use" principle has "serious limitations", and recommended that sites should be cleaned up "to the highest standard that can be reached without excessive cost and not merely to the standard required for the use immediately intended" (ENDS Report 254, pp 23-25 ). The recommendation was rejected by the Government earlier this year.

More recently, the building industry has criticised the "suitable for use" approach in its attempts to minimise landfill tax liabilities arising from the redevelopment of brownfield sites. The Government has insisted that tax must be paid on lightly contaminated soil sent to landfill where its removal is not required on scientific or planning grounds - but builders maintain that this fails to take into account risk perceptions among prospective financiers and purchasers of property built on contaminated sites (ENDS Report 268, pp 38-39 ).

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