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DEFRA: Contaminated Land Regulations

DEFRA consulted on changes to the contaminated land regime. Terms of reference for the consultation are at The Geological Society made a written submission.

Submission to DEFRA inquiry: changes to contaminated land regime

  1. The Geological Society is the national learned and professional body for Earth sciences, with 10,000 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia and government. The Society accredits Chartered Geologists and Scientists who are well placed to be part of the professional community tackling the country’s land contamination issues in a proportionate and rational manner. Our Chartered members form the largest constituency of Specialists in Land Condition –the country's most relevant professional qualification for this sector.
  2. The Society welcomes the invitation to comment on the proposals for updating the statutory guidance underpinning part 2A of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Geologists are at the forefront of efforts to develop the conceptual site models that robust and defensible risk assessments depend on. We welcome the recognition of the complexities and multi-disciplinarity of contaminated land management and the need for suitably qualified expertise to be brought to bear on specific situations. 
  3. We welcome the recognition that many geological formations and derived soils have total concentrations of some substances that exceed the generic assessment criteria currently available but without posing a substantive risk to human health or the environment. We suggest that geologists are well placed to develop advice for local authorities on what constitutes typical or background levels in different parts of the country. 
  4. It is noted that in Chapter 1, p. 7 – in the definition of “land contamination” – that this consultation refers to sites “that pose a risk resulting from industrial pollution” but wishes to separate areas of high risk from areas perceived to be a low risk to the public. Contaminated sites often include those locations that were formerly quarries, pits and mines (used in mineral extraction).
  5. Question 1: We support the provision of clear, succinct, guidance providing that the end-users are not in any doubt about what is covered in the guidance and where their responsibilities lie.
  6. Question 2: The separation proposed appears sensible but it must identify the contamination caused by human activity and naturally-occurring background radiation.
  7. Question 3: No comment.
  8. Question 4: The document recognises the variations that occur throughout the country. Some areas, such as Cornwall and West Devon, and the North Pennines, have a legacy of mining and the issue of contaminated land is much greater. It is important that, in such areas, there is an understanding of geodiversity and the historical value of former mine workings and their associated “tips”. Indeed, in Cornwall and West Devon, many areas of contaminated land are SSSI and part of a World Heritage Site recognised by UNESCO. In the North Pennines there is a UNESCO-recognised Geopark. In Derbyshire there are also a number of areas that could fall under scrutiny: again some of significant geological importance. In the devolution of responsibility to Local Authorities and smaller community groups the “value” of such areas of contaminated land must be recognised and any mitigation designed to retain that intrinsic value while – at the same time – ensuring public health.
  9. Question 5: The guidance on risk assessment must ensure that those consulted include (where appropriate) those with a knowledge of geodiversity as explained in response to Q.4. Former mining and quarrying sites are well-known to the geoscience community, and involving such individuals or RIGS Groups or Geology Trusts in the assessment of risk should not create an extra burden on those involved. 
  10. Questions 6, 7: We certainly agree with the proposition that “normal” background levels of contamination (e.g. natural radioactivity from shales and other rocks, naturally occurring minerals and rocks containing heavy metals, etc.) should not be swept up into regulation unless there is some fear of enhanced risk. We would point out, however, that an important component to this documentation is an understanding of soil science, which has been a neglected area of expertise in the UK for many years. Interest and research in soils (particularly when they are at risk as a result of climate change) should be stimulated and encouraged as a direct outcome of this review and consultation. 
  11. Questions 8 - 15: The proposals appear sensible, although outside our expertise. No further comment is offered. 
  12. Questions 16-20: The proposals appear sensible, although outside our expertise. There is a requirement in the context of all these comments/questions to maintain a well-funded and robust Environment Agency that is able to either do, or support, the science required in making such assessments.
  13. Questions 21 - 27: We do not have a collective view on a response to these questions as it is outside our area of expertise.
  14. It is important to have clear guidance on what constitutes contaminated land. As geoscientists we are aware of naturally occurring hazards and those that have been enhanced by quarrying and mining. Many such places are important for both geodiversity, scientific research and industrial heritage. While never placing the preservation of such pits, quarries, mines, mine dumps, etc., above human health, any regulations must be mindful of the value of such sites to the geodiversity of an area. This is particularly true in areas such as Cornwall and West Devon World Heritage Site and the North Pennines Global Geopark. Local authorities and others responsible for risk assessments must involve the geosciences community in any discussions of particular areas. This can be either through the network of Local Geological Sites (RIGS) or the Geology Trusts on a county-by-county basis.
  15. We would also make a plea for a greater understanding of soil science and if the assessments of contaminated land can promote even a small resurgence of interest in, and research on, soils, this would be in the national interest.
  16. The assessment of risk from contamination of water bodies, including groundwater (which is not mentioned in the consultation document), must be a key role for a strong, science-driven, Environment Agency, supported by on-going hydrogeological research.