Tackling the contamination time-bomb

Earlier this year, it appeared possible that the public registers of "contaminative" uses of land which had been due to be established next April would sink into oblivion. Environment Ministers suspended the initiative in response to claims by property developers that the registers would cause serious damage to an already declining property market. So the revised proposals issued in August at least offer the prospect that the registers will be introduced, albeit in much truncated form, excluding all but a handful of the contaminative uses originally proposed (see pp 26-27 ).

The initiative still faces intense opposition from property developers and others. One common objection to the registers is that no provision is to be made for "delisting" contaminated sites which have been cleaned up. This does not stand up to scrutiny. Little research has been conducted to assess the long-term effectiveness of different remediation methods, but one official study in Wales has shown that several of the small number of reclamation operations investigated remained a "contamination time-bomb" (ENDS Report 169, pp 7-8). And clearly, the British policy of cleaning up a site so that it is fit for a particular end use does not guarantee that it will be fit for any subsequent use.

Developers also argue that they pay close attention to contamination when redeveloping sites, so that the registers are unnecessary. The evidence again suggests otherwise. Many housing estates have been built close to or on gassing landfills and other contaminated sites in recent years, when investigations carried out in accordance with official guidance would have identified the risks involved. The natural tendency of the householders is to keep mum about the risks so that their properties are not devalued.

The Government's decision to reduce greatly the number of contaminative uses to be entered on the registers fails to give proper acknowledgement to the fact that pollution potential does not respect industrial boundaries. The ubiquitous use of chemicals such as chlorinated solvents means that there are now many sectors beyond the obviously polluting industries which pose a threat of soil and groundwater contamination. Over the past three years, textile, electronics, engineering and leather companies are among those which have caused aquifer pollution which will be, or has been, extremely expensive to clean up. Not to include them on the register is to perpetuate the old head in the sand attitude which has characterised the UK's contaminated land policy for many years.

This is not to say that the risk that the registers will create blight, and the attendant innocent householder problem, should be disregarded. The Government intends to address these issues by means of guidance to local authorities. This will not suffice. True, there have been official hints that consideration is also being given to setting up a clean-up fund, based on a levy on polluting sectors, to pay for investigations and clean-up operations once the registers are established. But something more than hints will be needed for the registers to make a positive contribution to environmental improvement.

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