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Flawed remedy

ANALYSIS

The Government's guidance on tackling contaminated land should be music to the ears of practitioners who are typically loaded with liability.

The guidance reinforces the principle that the polluter pays for remediating a site. It also makes clear that decontamination will be geared to a site's end use. Where there is no contact between contaminants and people or animals, and no danger of the pollutant migrating to uncontaminated sites or water courses, material should be left insitu.

The Government hopes that, by laying out responsibilities and setting standards, England can start clawing back into use 300,000ha of blighted land. But it might be disappointed.

Risk aversion has become an ingrainedclient attitude and critics fear it could take a generation to shake free developers' anxieties that decontaminated sites are accidents - and claims - waiting to happen.

Fears that the Environment Agency and local authorities will not be equipped to enforce standards do little to break clients' habit of distrust (see News).

Few clients or practitioners are likely to digest the 180 pages of the guidance themselves and the task of finding out just how useful the guidance is will fall mainly to lawyers and academics.

Legal experts are warning that, by retrospectively imposing the guidance on pollution caused since 1990, the Government is imposing standards that nobody, then, could have hoped to anticipate. Messy and potentially damaging legal wranglingis envisaged.

They warn that the join between contaminated land, water pollution and closed landfill regimes needs urgent tightening. A unified set of decontamination standards designed specifically for the UK is also vital.

Without complete and seamless guidance clients' trust will be hard won. And without backing from developers the remediation industry will continue to suffer from chicken-egg syndrome: it needs projects on which to develop new remediation techniques and to equip people with experience; and it needs experienced personnel and viable technologies to tackle complex projects.

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