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Hottest topic in town

Julia Roberts' latest film is helping to open up contaminated land issues for public debate, says Paul Nathanail.

ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION Act Part IIA (note the capital A) has been in place for about five weeks - and the world has notstopped turning yet. The final version of the DETR circular is available from www.detr.gov.uk/contaminated/land and was described in last month's Contaminated Land News. The past month has seen draft guidance for Local Authority Inspection Strategies and the release of a major film dealing with contaminated land - 'Erin Brockovich' - as well as the broadcast of two television programmes on the subject: BBC Panorama's 'Blighted' on 20March and Channel 4's Dispatches on 6 April. But still no CLEA guideline values or model procedures.

The DETR and the Environment Agency, with help from Judith Lowe, have drafted advice for local authorities on how to prepare their inspection strategies. Copies of this document have been posted on the FOCIL email list and may be retrieved from the web archive at www.mailbase.ac.uk Comments by 1 June 2000 are welcomed by the DETR.

The advice note is in three parts: an introduction and overview of local authority duties, a procedure for developing the strategy and a proposed structure for a strategy. The proposed structure is presented in the form of a checklist of items to include in the inspection strategy document. Items are tagged as essential, recommended or optional.

One of the essential items is a description of the characteristics of the local authority area -current land use characteristics, protected locations, key property types (eg ancient monuments), key water resource/protection issues, known information on contamination, current and past industrial history, and geological/hydrogeological characteristics.

Those local authorities fortunate enough to have been the subject of a British Geological Survey applied geology project will have a headstart in writing this part of their inspection strategy.

Feedback of an earlier draft of the advice note, elicited from 25 local authority representatives at a seminar at the University of Nottingham in March, was positive and the advice was warmly received. While allowing for local authorities to reflect their individual circumstances, the advice, if widely adopted, should result in a degree of consistency in inspection strategies across the country and thereby avoid one of the biggest threats of LAs outsourcing the preparation of the inspection strategy to a wide number of organisations. Those of you who missed Panorama's 'Blighted' can find the full transcript at www.bbc.co.uk in the Panorama archive section. The ensuing online discussion highlighted the strong emotional response that land contamination causes: anger from residents whose houses had been featured against their wishes, fear from those potentially affected by any contamination and frustration from those who felt the programme was a setback to attempts to reuse brownfield sites rather than consume more greenfield land.

The speedy response of ICI to the discovery of hexabutadiene inside houses near their Weston Quarries, Runcorn was acknowledged by the programme makers as being as much as could be expected in the circumstances. The Environment Agency, in response to questions about the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield, confirmed that it has no power within the planning system to require certain forms of remediation - and went on to say that 'perhaps we don't wish to have powers' too verturn LA planning decisions. The factory features in Unsafe as Houses: Urban Renaissance or Toxic Time Bombby Paul de Zylva et al (available from Friends of the Earth at £12.95) which discusses building houses on contaminated land from a NGO perspective.

The Dispatches programme (see www.channel4.com/) considered the effectiveness of the landfill tax since its introduction four years ago. In a post-programme on-line poll, 62% of voters said they would be prepared to pay extra purchase taxes on goods and services to fund proper wastedisposal and 86% said there should be there be stricter laws, backed up by fines, to force people to recycle their refuse.

If you have not seen yet seem 'Erin Brockovich' yet then a visit to your local cinema is a must. Based on a true story, the film follows the consequences of are lease of chromium VI from a power station and the discovery of evidence of the release by the eponymous Erin - played in revealing style by Julia Roberts.

Films such as this and 'A CivilAction' are raising public awareness of land contamination issues and offer an ideal opportunity for us all to get across the message that brownfield sites can be redeveloped safely -but that such practices require specialist skills and expertise. A recent publication from the Scotland and Northern Ireland Forum for Environmental Research (SNIFFER) entitled Communicating Understanding of Contaminated Land Risks provides a compact overview of what constitutes good practice in risk communication.

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