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Talking point

Geoff Card reviews the government's contaminated land policy

Protecting the environment is high on the political agenda at both national and European Union level. The Government's manifesto included the statement: 'Business has an important role to play in achieving a clean environment. . . no one can escape unhealthy water, polluted air, or adverse climate change. . . we must act together to tackle them.'

Deputy prime minister John Prescott says Labour is committed to developing sustainable solutions for dealing with the problems posed by brownfield land. The Urban Task Force, set up by the Government and chaired by Lord Rogers, has done little to uncover the real issues hindering development on contaminated land that stem from the government's own enforcing authority - the Environment Agency.

The Government's latest guidance on tackling the issues of contaminated land is set out in the September 1999 draft Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions circular Environment Protection Act 1990: Part II A Contaminated Land. This statutory guidance for the identification and remediation of contaminated land will be enforced from 1 April.

The draft reinforces the principle that a site should be assessed for risk from contamination on the basis of the now familiar 'contaminant, pathway and receptor' model. On the assumption that the risk actually exists, the remediation adopted is based on the 'suitable for use' approach with due regard to likely current and future proposed activities of the land.

Government's definition of contaminated land includes 'any land where significant harm is being caused or there is significant possibility of such harm being caused.' So, for example, groundwater could be considered a contaminant since, in abundant quantities, people can drown in it, many compounds are soluble in it, and it corrodes and decays building materials. By this definition, all land in the UK could be considered contaminated.

However, water is not perceived as a risk because the construction industry has devised safe, reliable ways of piping it into homes, sealing building materials from moisture penetration and carries out good design practice. By the same token, safe and reliable solutions can be designed for chemical ground contaminants such as heavy metals and hydrocarbons, as well as landfill gases.

A welcome statement in the new draft is the requirement of local authorities and the EA to provide specific advice to developers on remediation techniques and clean-up standards.

All involved in remediation of contaminated land will know how ill-equipped and under funded both local authorities and the EA are to meet this task. This is due to a lack of skilled staff and a unwillingness to participate in the decision making process for remediation. In this regard, there is a distinct lack of reference to any government clean-up targets, such as those purported to be in the long overdue CLEA document, and a lack of guidance on protocols for undertaking risk assessments.

With regard to the remediation itself, the document makes it clear that specific pollution control permits or authorisations may be required by the EA to demonstrate the process used will not have an adverse environmental impact to air, land or water.

The relevance and need for these controls for any remediation process is questionable given that not all contaminated land or water can be defined as waste.

Already, many developers of brownfield land have fought shy of using any process that requires waste management licensing because of the implied long term liability and commercial marketability. Instead, developers have preferred to use conventional, but sometimes more costly and environmentally unsustainable, dig and dump techniques that, by a bizarre twist, fall outside any requirements for site or mobile plant licensing.

Consequently, far from simplifying the issues of contaminated land, the Government and the EA have complicated matters by promoting unsustainable arguments with no technical justification - to the increasing frustration of the construction industry. Without technical guidance on clean-up targets and risk protocols, varying standards of assessment and remediation requirements by the enforcing authority will still prevail.

Already, developers are reporting unnecessarily long and expensive delays to planning approvals due to indecision by local authority and EA regulators. This is having an adverse impact on the construction industry such that the Government's aim of 60% of new housing developments being built on brownfield land by 2010 is in jeopardy.

Using well researched remediation process techniques, combined with real state risk assessment evaluation methods, our experience has shown it is possible to obtain design and planning approval for many sites labelled 'too contaminated to develop' by local authority planners and EA regulators.

Contaminated land is not a barrier to successful development and remediation solutions can be designed with foundation or earthwork requirements in mind, providing optimum solutions at minimal cost.

Geoff Card is chief executive of geotechnical consultant Card Geotechnics.

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