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Contaminated Land Regulations

Certain types of industrial and human activities contaminate land areas around the country. Accidental releases of substances into natural environments can also cause land contamination.

So, how can you check whether your business is operating on a contaminated site and who has the responsibility for cleaning up contaminated land in United Kingdom?

Common Causes of Land Contamination

Substances that can contaminate the ground and waterways, include:

  • Asbestos
  • Chemical substances and preparations (e.g. solvents)
  • Combustible materials and radioactive substances
  • Flammable or toxic gases (e.g. methane)
  • Heavy metals (e.g. arsenic, cadmium, lead)
  • Organic contaminants (e.g. oils and tars)

Definition of Contaminated Land

As a rule, it would be defined as ‘contaminated land’ if any of the substances contained on or in it are causing (or may cause):

  • Significant harm to people, to property, or to protected animal species.
  • Significant pollution of surface waters, such as lakes and rivers, or groundwater zones.
  • Harm to people as a result of radioactivity.

There are some common sites whereby land is more prone to becoming contaminated. Typical examples include areas that have previously been used as a:

  • Factory
  • Landfill
  • Mine
  • Refinery
  • Steel mill
  • Storage depot

Special Sites Designation

Certain types of contaminated land can be classified as ‘special sites’. In this case, the Local Authority would no longer be the enforcing authority. Special sites include land that:

  • Has a serious effect on drinking waters, important groundwater sources, or surface waters.
  • Has previously been, or is still being, used for certain types of industrial activities (e.g. making explosives, oil refining).
  • Has been used for the disposal of waste acid tars.
  • Is owned or occupied by the Ministry of Defence, contaminated by radioactivity, or is a nuclear site.
  • Is being, or was once, regulated using a permit issued under the integrated pollution control or pollution prevention and control regimes.

Note: The Environment Agency produce technical guidance on contaminated land management including how to assess, investigate, and manage the risks involved.

If a local council designates an area as a special site, the authority over it would then be enforced and regulated by:

  • The Environment Agency in England
  • Natural Resources Wales in Wales
  • The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) in Scotland

Deciding if Your Land is Contaminated

As a rule, it will be the local council or one of the environment agencies who would decide whether your land is contaminated. There are several reasons why they may investigate the state of your land, such as if:

  • Someone makes an application for an environmental permit or other licence.
  • The land is the subject of development proposals.
  • The land has some pollution problems.
  • The local councils are inspecting land zones in their area.
  • You sell, let, transfer, or use the land.

Note: You should contact your local council if you have any reasons to believe that your land is contaminated.

Dealing with Contaminated Land

In fact, the rules on who is responsible for land contamination, and how to deal with it, differ. It would depend on whether the authorities consider it as ‘contaminated land’ in a legal sense.

Land that Counts as Contaminated Land

In most cases, the person who caused the contamination, or allowed it to happen, is responsible for dealing with it if it’s legally considered to be ‘contaminated land’. Exceptions to this rule may occur if:

  • The authorities cannot identify a person responsible for the contamination.
  • The local council or the environment agency investigating the issue decide to grant them an exemption.

If this happens, the council or environment agency would usually make a decision on who has the responsibility for dealing with it. They can determine the landowner is responsible (or another person who uses the land).

The council or the environment agency would usually follow this up by:

  • Deciding how to deal with the problem.
  • Asking the responsible person to deal with the contamination.
  • Informing them how to take care of it (e.g. clean up the contaminated area or fence it off).

What if the person fails to deal with the contamination? In this case, they would receive a ‘remediation notice’ from the council or agency. A remediation notice gives the date of when the issue needs to be taken care of.

Note: It is possible to agree a voluntary scheme with the council or environment agency. You may set this up if you are responsible for some (or all) of the clean up. You would need to inform them what steps you will take to clean up the contaminated land.

Land that Does Not Count as Contaminated Land

As the landowner, or person responsible for causing it, you may have the responsibility to clean the contamination if it is not legally considered as ‘contaminated land’.

Note: Failing to deal with contamination that you are responsible for can result in legal action. You can read more in the principles of contamination risk management as a landowner or a developer.

Developing Contaminated Land

To develop it, you would need to deal with the contamination before you get planning permission or as part of the actual development. Your local council can provide further details on what you must do to ensure land is suitable for a proposed development.

Contaminated Land Regulations in United Kingdom