Councils still behind on contaminated land

Councils are making slow progress with identifying and remediating contaminated land, a survey by the Environment Agency has found. But the Agency makes no recommendations for improvements.

Most councils in England and Wales have inspected less than 10% of their areas for contaminated land in the seven years since the contaminated land regime - part IIA of the Environmental Protection Act - became law, a report by the Environment Agency has found.1 The regime was implemented in 2000 in England and 2001 in Wales. It requires councils to identify contaminated sites such as old waste dumps and chemical works and gives them powers to force the polluter to pay to clean them up. The Agency is responsible for regulating more seriously polluted ‘special’ sites.

Concern within the remediation industry about the slow pace of site clean-up under part IIA is not new. It has been dogged by delays, especially the confusion over soil guideline values used in contaminated land risk assessments (ENDS Report 403, pp 20-21 ).

The Agency’s report is important because it provides official data on progress with the regime from its implementation until March 2007. The report is only the second to be published by the Agency as a statutory duty under the Act. The first was in 2002 for England only (ENDS Report 333, pp 13-14 ). The latest report is based on a survey of all 375 councils in England and Wales and received a 91% response rate. Its key findings were:

  • Identifying contaminated sites: Most councils have only inspected a tenth of their areas. About half believe less than 10% of their areas are contaminated, but more than a third believe there may be more. The Agency estimates there may be 325,000 potentially contaminated sites across England and Wales.

    The report finds that 781 sites have been determined under part IIA. The Agency has designated 35 of these as special which it will regulate, leaving 746 for councils.

    But the figures are misleading because many of these 746 sites are single properties on housing estates. Each house is counted as a separate site, so there may only be a 100-150 different locations under part IIA.

  • Remediation: Of the 746 contaminated sites regulated by councils, 144 have been remediated. Five of the special sites have been cleaned-up. But sites do not need to be determined under the regime in order to be remediated. The report finds that most polluted land is dealt with through the planning regime with only 10% of sites going through part IIA. Voluntary remediation accounted for 91 contaminated sites and 25 special sites.

    Even after sites are determined, it can take three years to begin remediation. The clean-up process can take up to a further year for ordinary contaminated sites, and two years for special sites.

  • Costs and liability: Inspecting sites, including those not determined, cost councils £26 million. The Agency’s inspection costs were £4 million. Remediation costs to March 2007 were £13.25 million for council-regulated sites and £7.3 million for special sites. A further £62 million may be needed to complete the process.

    Most costs are falling on the taxpayer rather than polluters or site owners. The report finds that although councils have identified the liable or ‘appropriate’ person at 350 sites, they are only likely to pay at 86. Where public funds have been used for clean-up, there was the potential to recover the costs at 69 sites, but the recovery process had only started at 17 sites and completed at five, all in England.

  • Methods and standards: The report finds that most sites regulated by councils were remediated by ‘dig and dump’ - excavation and disposal to landfill. At special sites, alternative treatment techniques were more likely to be considered.

    Of the sites that have been remediated, 46 do not have a verification report to show they have been cleaned up to the standard agreed with the regulator. The Agency says that although verification reports are not mandatory, they are good practice.

  • Performance and perceptions: Councils were evenly split over how they see their performance. About half said they had made ‘good progress’ and half ‘little progress’.

    Councils were asked to rank which of the regime’s aspects they found most and least helpful. The definition of contaminated land and the process to identify sites was seen as the most helpful. Councils found funding of the implementation of part IIA and its approach to apportionment of liability to be the least helpful.

    Councils were almost evenly split over whether the regime’s risk assessment approach was the most or least helpful aspect.

  • Despite the wealth of data the survey provides, the Agency gives little insight into what it means. Nor does it recommend how the contaminated land regime could be improved.

    Ian Martin, a land contamination scientist at the Agency and one of the authors of the report, said the Agency preferred to "concentrate on the facts and the figures rather than give our opinion". He continued: "My key conclusion is that part IIA is the backstop - the regulatory instrument of last resort."

    Katherine Smith, policy officer at the local authority regulatory service LACORS, said councils take their statutory duty to remedy contaminated land seriously. But the process can take a "considerable amount of time". She continued: "There are no statutory timescales for investigating and remedying contaminated land and councils, as with all their work, have to balance priorities against the resources available and the risk to people."

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