Contaminated Land Inspection Strategy

Cornwall Council is consulting on a new contaminated land inspection strategy for 2020-2025: see ENDS Report 5 March 2020.

The headline is that the Council has identified 1,920 potentially contaminated sites. These include sites with former land uses, such as mining and mineral processing, metal smelting and refining, fuel stations, transport and storage, landfill and waste sites, and general and heavy engineering. The Council estimates that it has dealt with over 10,000 planning applications involving potentially contaminated land since 2009. This likely reflects the impact of Cornwall’s traditional industries: mining, fishing and farming.

The draft strategy sets out how the Council will identify and deal with contaminated land. It records that it has been produced in order to comply with the Council’s duties under the 1990 Act, the contaminated land regulations and the current statutory guidance.

In line with the guidance, the draft distinguishes between strategic and detailed inspections. The Council’s strategic inspection, involving a broad assessment of its area and the identification of priority land for more detailed consideration, has taken place over the last few years. It highlighted 54,677 areas of potential contaminated land, which the Council divided into three categories: category C for sites likely to present a low risk under Part IIA; category B for sites that may have some risk but are highly unlikely to cause significant harm under Part IIA; and category A for sites recommended for more detailed investigation. 4% of sites – i.e. 1,920 – were identified as coming within category A.

These categories were chosen by the Council, rather than adopted from the statutory guidance or legislation. As currently drafted, the test used to identify category A sites is described in varying ways. One reading is that category A includes any site where the risk is greater than category B: i.e. where it cannot be concluded that the site is highly unlikely to cause significant harm under Part IIA. Elsewhere, the draft states that “only sites where significant contaminant linkages are considered highly likely will be recommended for detailed inspection” (p.20). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Council’s media announcement seeks to avoid public concern, emphasising that “many of the sites that have been identified for inspection may not be considered to be a cause of potential harm and nothing may need to be done to the land”. It may be that this point will be clarified in the final version of the strategy.

As for detailed inspection, the draft records that the Council’s approach will follow the risk-based principles in Environment Agency guidance (“Land contamination: risk management”). This has three tiers: preliminary risk assessment; generic risk assessment; and detailed quantitative risk assessment. The purpose of the preliminary risk assessment is to develop an initial conceptual model of the site. The model is based on potential contaminant linkages and is intended to establish whether there are any potentially unacceptable risks. As well as desktop information, the first tier will involve a preliminary site inspection. Completing it “will be the key aim of the strategy from 2020-2025” (p.21).

The second tier will involve comparing data collected during the site investigation with Generic Assessment Criteria (“GACs”). The draft borrows from the statutory guidance when describing GACs and outlines in broad terms that the Council intends to use them to exclude sites from further assessment. As noted in the text (paras 3.87-3.88), GACs can play a role in the identification of contaminated land, though local authorities should remain mindful of their limitations. As its name suggests, the third tier is a more detailed quantitative risk assessment and will usually involve the collection of further data from the site.

Once complete, the inspection process will result in the preparation of a risk summary where the Council “considers it likely that the land in question may be determined as contaminated land” (p.25). The risk summary will be drafted so as to be comprehensible to the layperson, and the Council will not proceed to formal determination of the land as contaminated unless a risk summary has been prepared.

The remainder of the draft includes topics such as the Council’s approach, based on the statutory guidance, to formal determination; a high-level description of remediation under Part IIA; and the role of the planning process in the redevelopment of land affected by contamination. It is accompanied by eight appendices covering a range of issues, including the internal and external relationships required to deliver the strategy; a risk prioritisation methodology; progress measure; and an outline of the Council’s approach to handling information.

The draft is a useful example of an inspection strategy in a local authority area with a significant history of contaminated land issues.

For those interested in responding, the consultation ends on 24 April 2020.

Text references paras 3.56-3.89.


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