Environment Agency urges cautious approach to new land contamination rules

At a conference on land contamination in Central London, the Environment Agency advised delegates that it was treading carefully with new clean-up rules, and said that Local Authorities are showing an “excellent commitment” to the regime.

Speaking at an annual contaminated land conference on 25 September, organised by CIRIA, an environmental and construction research company, Jane Morris, Land Policy Advisor at the Environment Agency presented an overview of the success of Part IIA of the 1990 Environment Act one year after its introduction. The presentation follows the Agency’s publication of a new guide to assist local authorities with their responsibilities under this contaminated land legislation (see related story).

Morris said that Local Authorities, upon whom the burden of identifying contaminated land now lies, were showing “an excellent commitment” to the regime 15 months after its introduction, with 91% having their new inspection strategy either published or at the formal consultation stage. The Agency itself, she advised, “is taking a cautious approach”, preferring to face criticism over lack of speed, rather than making mistakes and having to revisit clean-up sites. Morris said that in Wales, where the regime was only enacted this July, it was “of concern” that the Welsh Assembly was not planning on waiting the full 15 months for Inspection Strategies to be completed.

Until now, Local Authorities have identified 23 contaminated land sites, of which eight have been designated as ‘Special Sites’ liable for involvement by the Environment Agency as it is deemed the best placed to enforce remediation. The Agency itself, Morris said, is currently undertaking inspections at 12 other potential Special Sites and is compiling its State of Contaminated Land Report, which is the first attempt to provide an overview of the problem. Local Authorities are required to provide the Agency with data in summary forms and the report should be ready in Spring 2002.

Except for Special Sites, Local Authorities must establish who should pay for the clean-up, decide what exactly is required, and make sure that it actually happens. This can happen either through planning permission, voluntary agreement, or by issuing a Service of Remediation notice.

Morris said had witnessed an encouraging level of voluntary compliance, with many large companies having programmes of action, including in inspection at potential Special Sites, but that the process must be further encouraged. “The real success of the voluntary regime will be when we can deal with land contamination without serving remediation notices,” Morris said, adding that, to date, four such notices have been issued.

Certain teething problems have already been identified with Part IIA, she said. Firstly, on drawing the line on land boundaries when land use has changed since contamination took place, an example being where one polluting land owner sold the land on to perhaps 15 individuals, who are not to blame for the contamination. A second problem is the vagueness of the definition of water pollution under the law.

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