New centre puts UK research into contaminated land on track

A new UK centre for co-ordinating national efforts to improve contaminated land assessment methodologies, research and develop remediation technologies and disseminate information to industry and academia has been created in Edinburgh. Colin Cunningham, the Centre's research co-ordinator, explains its remit.

The UK has an estimated 100,000-220,000 hectares of contaminated land, and government policy and subsequent legislation concerned with its use has been developing over several years. In February 1998, the Government announced a minimum target of 60% of new dwellings to be provided on brownfield land over the next 10 years. This is, therefore, an exciting time for those involved in fundamental and applied research into contaminated land management.

Diesel contamination on railtracks

Biopiles used to remediate diesel contamination

The long-awaited legislative framework from the UK Environment Act 1995 will come into force in July 1999. Local authorities will then have the responsibility, and greater powers, to enforce registration and clean-up of contaminated sites. In contrast to the US Superfund programme, the UK has adopted a more pragmatic ‘suitable-for-use’ policy with less prescriptive targets for remedial actions. Indeed, no new guidelines on contaminant levels have appeared since 1987. Instead, a risk assessment-based strategy is being applied to the management of contaminated sites.

Landfilling of contaminated soils has historically been the most attractive disposal route, not least due to low costs and ease of implementation. However, a lack of sustainability is one obvious criticism of landfilling; it is a disposal not a treatment option. Landfilling itself presents a number of environmental problems; for example, methane emissions and potentially hazardous chemicals present in leachates. There is a requirement in the UK for co-ordinated efforts in assessing contaminated sites and providing sustainable and cost-effective technologies for dealing with the legacy of our industrial past.

To address these needs a multi-disciplinary Contaminated Land Assessment and Remediation Research Centre (CLARRC) has been established. CLARRC was founded by the University of Edinburgh, Napier University and the Scottish Universities’ Research and Reactor Centre (SURRC) with an initial grant of £500,000 from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (SHEFC). The aim of the centre is to provide a valuable service to landowners, developers, UK industry, local authorities and the academic research community through:

Improved site investigation, monitoring, and risk assessment methodologies;

Research and development of cost-effective, sustainable, remediation technologies;

Technology transfer to UK industry

Dissemination of knowledge and expertise through targeted workshop programmes for industry and academia;

Establishment of a contaminated land users’ forum;

Provision of industrial training programmes.

Consultancy services

CLARRC embraces the premise that effective contaminated land management requires co-operation and communication across many scientific and engineering disciplines. These include microbiology, biogeochemistry, chemical and environmental engineering, chemistry, geology and geophysics, hydrogeology, risk assessment and environmental cost-benefit analysis. The establishment of CLARRC will facilitate the transfer of skills and enhance the ability of members to communicate and work as part of multi-disciplinary teams.

State-of-the-art laboratory and computing facilities are being developed centrally to allow integrated research programmes to be carried out. Examples of current projects within CLARRC include:

* Geophysical investigations of contaminated land;

* Modelling of biogeochemical transformations of petroleum contaminants in soils ;

* Prediction of natural attenuation feasibility in complex biogeochemical environments;

* Modelling subsurface flow and contaminant migration pathways;

* Assessment of novel in-situ remediation techniques;

* Bioremediation of diesel-contaminated soils;

* Biosurfactant-enhanced bioremediation;

* Risk assessment related to health effects of contaminated land;

* Engineering analysis of landfill settlement;

* Use of radionuclides and stable isotopes to study the environmental migration of contaminants.

Current and future CLARRC projects will address fundamental and applied research areas identified by UK government departments and research councils. As well as carrying out “blue-skies” research, CLARRC sees industrial relevance as an important objective. The UK has an excellent scientific knowledge base that has the capability to produce innovative assessment and remediation technologies. It is important to facilitate their transfer to industry.

CLARRC also recognises the importance of European bodies such as the Network for Industrially Contaminated Land in Europe (NICOLE) and Concerted Action on Risk Assessment for Contaminated Sites in the European Union (CARACAS). Networking initiatives will expand both national and international links in the field. The centre has established links with Dr Ronald Atlas of the University of Louisville and with the Institute of Ecology and Genetics of Micro-organisms, Perm, Russia. CLARRC aims to become a centre of excellence in the contaminated land field, offering a full range of expertise from site assessment and modelling, through “proof of concept”, to the provision of appropriate solutions for the environmental industry.

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