SEPA calls for soil to have same protection as water and air

The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) is calling for soil to be awarded the same level of protection under law as air and water, pointing out its importance to the sustainability of the environment.

In its new report, State of the Environment: Soil Quality Report, SEPA points to air pollution, the application of organic wastes to soil, and agricultural practices as being the principal threats to the quality and long-term sustainability of soils in Scotland. However, the organisation also points out that as soil quality is not routinely surveyed, there is a lack of information on damage to soil, and so is calling for a comprehensive monitoring programme. SEPA is also recommending that a soil protection strategy should be developed and implemented for Scotland in order to protect soils from future unsustainable land use practices and pollution.

As well as resulting in a loss of ecosystem functioning, impacts on soil quality can also cause damaging effects on the water and air environment, says SEPA.

“The forthcoming Sixth European Environmental Action Plan includes an objective to protect soil and proposes a soil protection strategy and it is likely that a framework directive will be formulated,” said SEPA Chairman Ken Collins. “This backs up our call for Scotland’s soils to be given the protection they deserve.”

Industry is one of the worst culprits for causing damage to soils in Scotland, according to the report. There are nearly 12,000 hectares of derelict and vacant land, with the full extent of contamination by chemicals and radioactivity unknown. Deposition of sulphur and nitrogen compounds from the atmosphere has affected most land to some extent, with the resulting input of acidity exceeding the soil’s critical load in over 50% of the land area. This figure rises to 85% when acidity from ammonia deposition is also taken into account, with the most seriously affected areas falling in the west-central Highlands, eastern Cairngorms and Dumfries and Galloway. There is also deposition from the atmosphere of heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants, though the accumulation of these substances in the soil is not measured.

The authors of the report have also stressed concern over the effect of applying over 15 millions of tonnes of organic waste to the soil each year, which, although it can benefit soil quality, may also contain substances such as heavy metals and pathogens which persist over long periods of time. As well as sewage sludge, a proportion of this waste originates from industry, including distillery waste, blood and gut contents from abattoirs, and paper waste. Of these, only sewage sludge is regulated with respect to heavy metal contamination, and concern is also stressed over the unknown effects of contamination by old landfill sites.

The report also points out that the long-term impacts of pesticides – of which 7,767 tonnes were applied to agricultural land in 1998 – and inorganic fertilisers are unknown. Soil erosion caused by farming is also a problem, says SEPA.

“There are few parts of the country that escape the pressures that we inflict on our soil,” said SEPA Chief Executive Tricia Henton. “At present, SEPA has limited responsibility, so we are recommending that existing legislation should be integrated and a soil protection strategy devised.”

Environmentalists are warning that the Scottish Executive will need to contributed funds for cleaning up contaminated soil. “The current contaminated land review will help to identify problem areas, but in many cases there will be no money to deal with contaminated sites,” said Dr Richard Dixon, Head of Research at Friends of the Earth.

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