The questions were asked of a panel of experts at GE's contaminated land conference in London.
Answering queries on when further printed direction might appear, head of Land Quality Management Group (LQM) and University of Nottingham professor and masters course leader in contaminated land management Paul Nathanail said: "Until we know what the guidance is meant to do, there is no point in producing it.
"We wouldn't be in the mess we are in with SGVs [soil guideline values] if people read page one; my advice is read the guidance notes. People just go to page 77 [for example] and strip the numbers out from a table without understanding them."
Environment Agency (EA) policy manager Sheena Engineer said: "People think they can get answers from a book. But my feeling on putting more guidance out there is people won't read it – or just the table at the back."
Responding to concerns about the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) Assessing Risks from Land Contamination – a Proportionate Approach, Soil Guideline Values: the Way Forward document, Nathanail said: "Come on guys, it's a discussion document and that's it. It has some useful references but it's not technical guidance."
Standing conference on land contamination chair and Bristol City Council assistant manager within environment policy and protection Jonquil Maudlin said: "There is so much guidance out there it's amazing that things aren't actually perfect."
Before the panel discussion, Engineer said: "We all have a role in raising standards. We need to develop guidance for consultants and contractors but it's disappointing to see people are not using [current] guidance. Part of the problem is people are using guidance but not flagging up that they have done so [in their work]."
Engineer also outlined an EA focus for this year. She said: "In 2008 we will be looking at flooding and brownfield land. There are lots of brownfield areas that are prone to flooding [potentially causing contamination problems]. If these sites get flooded we need to have plans in place."
She added: "We are moving into a fascinating and pressured time and we want to see industry developing codes of practise like it is for waste."
Soil Guideline Values – the alternative view
The Environmental Industries Commission (EIC) last month called on the government for immediate action to produce a single set of soil guideline values (SGVs) in the next year, branding the current system "unworkable".
Speaking at the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC) winter reception at the House of Commons, EIC Contaminated Land Working Group chairman Alistair Kean (IKM Consulting) said one of the most pressing issues for the working group's 220 member companies was to remove obstacles from the present regime that is restricting development on brownfield sites.
"The SGV system, in line with the CLEA [Contaminated Land Exposure Assessment] model, is unworkable and results in excessive remediation," Kean said. "And while that might be good news for the remediation industry, it's not good for brownfield development. The situation is in a mess – there's no question about it."
Kean said the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) had recently reshuffled and created a new land team that "has not a clue" about the EIC's past three years of lobbying on this issue. He also said that since Defra's document The Way Forward was published in November 2006, progress towards a workable set of guidelines had "sadly stalled".
According to Kean, some organisations, such as the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and Land Quality Management, have produced their own guidelines on the subject of contaminated land and human health risk assessment but that this inconsistency is contributing to confusion.
Describing the situation as urgent, he said the recent changes to Defra's land team would cause delays: "Realistically it's difficult to imagine anything will happen in the next six months. However, we do hope there will be some clear and unified guidance on the subject in the next six to 12 months."
The GE conference panel comprised:
- Environment Agency policy manager Sheena Engineer
- Head of Land Quality Management Group and University of Nottingham professor Paul Nathanail
- Chartered Institute of Environmental Health's standing conference on land contamination chair and Bristol City Council assistant manager within environment policy and protection Jonquil Maudlin
- Hyder Consulting technical director contaminated land Dennis Barrie
- Conference chair and CIRIA project manager Joanne Kwan