What is contaminated land?

Generally when people think of contaminated land the first thing that comes to mind is an area of land which may have been polluted by current or previous uses such as a gas works, landfill site, petrol station or a scrap yard.

The legal definition of contaminated land as outlined in Part IIA of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 is as follows;

“Any land which appears to the local authority in whose area it is situated to be in such a condition, by reason of substances in, on or under the land that:

a) significant harm is being caused or there is the significant possibility of such harm being caused; or
b) significant pollution of controlled waters is being, or likely to be caused.

For land to be defined as contaminated this definition must be met. In addition to this a pollution linkage must also be present.

The Pollution Linkage

The overall approach in dealing with land contamination is usually through risk management. When considering land contamination there are three essential elements to any risk: a contaminant (or source), a receptor and a pathway.

A contaminant could be a substance that is in, on or under the land and has the potential to cause harm or to cause pollution of controlled waters. In general terms a receptor is something that could be adversely affected by a contaminant, such as people, water resources, flora and fauna and buildings. Lastly a pathway is a route by which a receptor can be exposed to or affected by a contaminant.

Each of these elements can exist independently of each other and they only create a risk when they are linked together. This link of contaminant-pathway-receptor is described as a pollutant linkage. Without this pollutant linkage there is no risk and therefore land cannot be described as contaminated under the definition of Part IIA.

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