Agreement on contaminated land regime ‘by 2009’

The contaminated land regime - Part IIA of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 - does not provide an effective mechanism for getting land cleaned up or ensuring the costs fall on those who are responsible, the Environment Agency’s director of environmental protection Tricia Henton told an Agency board meeting in May.

She presented a paper reviewing progress in implementing the regime, which came into force in 2000-01. The paper also set a timetable for agreement with the Environment Department (DEFRA) on contaminated land exposure assessment and soil guideline values.1 The failure of the Agency, DEFRA and the Health Protection Agency (HPA) to reach agreement over human health assessments has caused a crisis in implementing the regime that has reflected badly on the Agency and left many practitioners frustrated (see previous article ).

The paper reveals the Environment Agency hopes to reach agreement on the outstanding issues and complete a programme agreed with DEFRA by March 2009. "We anticipate that fundamental decisions will soon be made which will help us to manage this issue, start to produce new guidance and effectively manage future reputational risks," it says.

The Agency’s review of the regime shows that local authorities, responsible for identifying contaminated land under the regime, have looked at less than 10% of their areas to date and most have not identified any sites at all.

About 800 sites have been identified but most are multiple determinations of house plots, not major industrial or brownfield areas.

Of the contaminated sites identified so far, less than 20% have been remediated at a cost of some £21 million. Most of the money has come from public funds rather than polluters.

Nevertheless, there is a thriving market in contaminated land clean-up estimated to be worth £1 billion a year. This is carried out by the private sector outside the regime, which the Agency says is a preferable route.

The regime places responsibility on the Agency for ‘special sites’ which may include land used for complex industrial processes and sites causing water pollution. When the regime was introduced the Agency set a target to remediate 80 such sites by March 2007, but only 38 have so far been identified in England and Wales. Of these, only five have been cleaned up.

The paper says that the "complexity and procedural approach" of the regime means that managing the risks of contamination "often takes years". The Agency has identified a number of changes to improve environmental protection and ensure application of the polluter pays principle and it will propose them to DEFRA and the Welsh Assembly Government.

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