Inspecting for contaminated land: avoiding the pitfalls

Peter Leonard, Associate, SLR Consulting Ltd, explains how to deliver Part IIA.

LOCAL authorities serve the needs of their residents and have always provided a wealth of health protection services. Generally, the benefits are fairly easy to recognise.

It should be the same with contaminated land - local authorities protecting people from the associated health hazards. However, in carrying out their obligations, there is a growing trend to inspect residential land and this can place homeowners and tenants under prolonged periods of stress and worry.

The legislation governing contaminated land is Part IIA of the Environmental Protection Act and statutory guidance is given within DEFRA Circular 02/2000. The guidance states that local authorities have a duty to inspect land in their area and determine whether any of it fits the definition of Contaminated Land.

Setting the water environment to one side, they need to answer a single question: Is there a significant possibility that contaminants within a parcel of land are causing or could cause significant harm to humans, property or ecosystems?

While that is a fairly simple brief, authorities have quickly learnt that Part IIA projects can be extremely complex to deliver.

With the exception of the simplest of oil spills, they pose a myriad of difficult questions on issues involving technical and legal specialists, council officers and members, the Environment Agency, DEFRA and health professionals - let alone the need to communicate with residents and the local media.

The greatest challenges arrive when residential estates are being inspected. If a local authority becomes aware of the possibility of garden contamination, they will want to act quickly. Foremost in their mind will be the issue of protecting health, getting answers for anxious residents and avoiding criticism in the press.

Acting in haste at this time can turn residents against the project team and lay down problems for later. It is rare for local authorities to have experience of running a Part IIA investigation, let alone managing the communications aspects, and without knowledge exchange there are common errors that will be repeated across the country.

These include appointing the wrong technical advisors, going to the residents without having a realistic idea of project timescales and mismanaging the type and timing of information released to residents and the press. Avoidance of these errors can lead to considerable benefits for the local authority officers, residents and the public purse.

Many authorities make the mistake of drawing up an unrealistic timetable for releasing information on the soil samples to residents. If, subsequently, there is a delay, mistrust can set in with residents thinking that the council is either incompetent or hiding something.

Another common error occurs when information is released to residents and the press. Typically, the first action is to issue a press release, but it is important that residents are informed first and are told what information will be given to the media.

They will also need a little time to come to terms with the fact that their gardens are to be investigated. Reading an inflammatory article on page one of the local newspaper the day after they find out, does not help.

People need more than one day to deal with the fact that their children's health might be affected, that their property value may drop or that they may not be able to sell their home until the study reaches a conclusion or remedial works have been carried out - and the time scale for this is likely to be years rather than months.

People react in different ways and the best way to communicate this sort of news, if possible, is face to face. Even the angriest of characters appreciate the efforts of council officers if allowed to express their frustrations and fears.

The one thing that tends to unite homeowners is the affect the investigation has on their finances and freedom. Property blight has been associated with land contamination since 1992, or earlier, when the Government postponed the introduction of Registers of Potentially Contaminated Land.

One unexpected trend experienced by many home owners is that the simple performance of a Part IIA inspection can affect their ability to sell when local valuers advise mortgage companies to cease lending. If that occurs, the effects can be devastating. The stress that can result from finding yourself trapped can be huge and may cause greater adverse health effects than the contaminants to which that person may or may not be exposed.

Where possible, councils are advised to combat this situation by engaging local valuers and, if needed, the Council of Mortgage Lenders.

Local authorities are also advised to implement some form of support for residents - by engaging an independent residents' advisor or by offering contacts with healthcare professionals including stress counsellors.

Both measures are generally well received by residents and give them a greater understanding of the difficult task in hand.

If soil assessment concludes that remedial work is required, well informed residents are more likely to co-operate with the difficult processes of establishing financial liability and agreeing remedial options.

It has been common, in a bid to remove health risks and restore property values, for remedial works to gardens to involve excavation and replacement of garden soil in combination with hard paving. Whilst selecting that option gives residents peace of mind, rising landfill costs and requirements for pre-treatment of contaminated soils mean than alternative treatment technologies deserve serious consideration.

In the last year garden soils contaminated with both organic and inorganic pollutants have been treated with a combination of modified clays and cementitious materials in a stabilisation/solidification process. Other techniques, including bioremediation, are available depending on the contaminants found.

Where 'landfill' gas is present beneath properties, explosion risks need to be controlled either by passive or active venting. Similar techniques can be used to deal with risks arising from volatile hydrocarbon vapours alongside the retro-fitting of vapour-proof membranes and sealing of service entries.

This article should demonstrate the need for local authorities to plan their actions, build a suitable team to deliver a Part IIA inspection and involve residents as much as possible. Avoiding the pitfalls and knowing what works best isn't easy for those faced with an unfamiliar and complex situation and the need for knowledge transfer is paramount.

It is a good idea to seek advice from experienced specialists at the start of a project or even to draft in an experienced Part IIA project manager from a consultancy; to take full or partial control of the project. This has been funded with support from DEFRA in the past and it allowed the local authority time to build their own in-house team, make connections with properly qualified risk assessors and deliver a better, less traumatic, service to their residents.

Peter Leonard has worked on a variety of Part IIA projects; he has managed the inspection of three residential estates in London and acted as an independent advisor to the residents of an estate in the north-west. Currently he is managing the assessment of several Part IIA sites.

For more information contact him at SLR Consulting tel: 01225 309 400 or email: pleonard@slrconsulting.co.uk

Press contacts: Sally Paynter or Caroline Hill, James Reed Public Relations,
Tel: 0117 905 5009, email: caroline@jamesreedpr.co.uk


SLR Group web site: SLR Consulting

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