Contamination problems soar as controls tighten

Copyright: David Lawson – published Property Week June 2007

There is a saying that you are never more than six feet away from a rat. Presumably that applies only when strolling at ground level, blithely unaware of the feral community scurrying through a labyrinth of sewers.   A similar rule could apply to contamination. Most people live in towns and cities, which are built on layer upon layer of detritus they would not tolerate today. Again, ignorance protects peace of mind, but this is being eroded as new techniques such as computer mapping expose what is below our feet.

  Exposure provokes almost visceral fear. More than 85% of homebuyers would withdraw if contamination was revealed nearby, according to a survey by the Woolwich mortgage arm of Barclays. Two thirds would reject a landfill site.  This compares with fewer than half who would drop out because of damp or dry rot, perhaps because of a feeling that these can be fixed.  No comparable analysis exists for commercial occupiers but fear must play a similar role.

  The swing to brownfield development will bring more of these problems to the surface. All the easy sites have been used up, says Yolande Barnes, research director of Savills. So have most of the more difficult ones such as waterfronts, where apartment blocks now cap potential problems. In future, developers face the worse offenders, such as big former industrial sites.

  Problems won’t be eased by tough new rules, says contamination specialist Card Geotechnics. Controls on waste disposal will become more severe from October under the latest stage of the European Union Landfill Directive. A key ruling by the European Court has also widened the definition of contamination, creating uncertainty about whether it will be adopted in the UK.  The Environment Agency aims to clamp down on an estimated 6m site offences that were slipping through the net every year even before tougher controls were implemented. Smaller developments will not escape the purge. The rules are meant to hit those producing more than 1,000 cu ft of spoil but this figure is not written in stone, says Card.

  It advises operators not to try and avoid being noticed but actively seek advice from local EA officials, as they could negotiate exemptions which avoid costly waste treatment or even site lockdown and fines. Problems may not be easy to solve – nor will they disappear quickly. There is great uncertainty about the classification, treatment and disposal of certain types of waste and how the regulations should be applied, says Card.  This is likely to continue after the October deadline as the system beds in. Given the potential legal and cost implications for getting waste classification wrong, professional advice will be vital.

  Close liaison with landfill operators will also be crucial. Even after navigating through the red tape, finding a home for hazardous waste will be fraught with problems. There are relatively few licensed sites and operators have discretion what to accept. This can vary day to day, according to the mix they have already accepted. Developers could be subject to a snap EA inspection with hazardous waste on site they must remove but have nowhere to take it, says Card.

    Problems are bound to escalate as rules get tougher. There is no guarantee that Home Inspection Packs will not re-emerge, putting contamination under home buyers’ noses. Even if they don’t, cheap online environmental reports are becoming commonplace, exposing previously hidden factors which could also influence commercial occupiers.  But their very existence is an opportunity to anticipate risks which may need detailed site inspections. These can be expensive but costs are minimal compared with discovering deal-breaking contamination or running into difficulties with disposal. 


 The price for failing to commission an environmental inspection came home to one developer when spilled fuel was discovered during construction on a former petrol station.  Martin Richell, commercial manager at RAW Remediation, which was called in to do a clean up,  says a mass ‘dig and dump’ would have been too expensive. Construction would also have been delayed, as there was no chance of phasing on such a small site. RAW designed a miniaturised remediation system, routing pipes and wires to enable construction to continue.  Cost-benefit and risk analysis identified appropriate targets in negotiations with the Environment Agency. These minimised costs and timescales, and the work finished ahead of schedule.

    Redundant filling stations are becoming popular development sites and each can cost around £90,000 to decontaminate, according to Richell. But this does not take into account delays if problems are not discovered until construction is under way.  Remediation and development can co-exist providing a specialist contractor is involved early in planning and programming, he says. The clean-up can then be designed around construction.