32 (127) 2017
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Energy & Environment

Land surface contamination and remediation

by Katarzyna Jankowska, senior environmental specialist, Arcadis
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The problem of land surface contamination may apply to virtually every type of real estate, especially in urban and post-industrial areas. Basically, wherever human activity has left its mark. The correct definition of land surface contamination and effectively remediating it while meeting legal requirements is a task for professionals.

The site’s history, past activity, or other indications of the potential contamination are crucial when deciding about soil investigation. It is important to be careful and to document a degree of soil contamination, especially when we consider purchasing or selling a property. The condition of the land surface has an influence on its value, therefore on the basis of the investigation we can negotiate the price. The owner of contaminated land or one who caused contamination is obliged to perform remediation.

The beginnings of remediation in Poland date back to the 1990s and are related to the fall of the communist government. One of the consequences of these changes was privatisation. The vastness of lands contaminated with petroleum products in Poland consisted of the areas abandoned by the Soviet Army (mainly fuel storage depots and airports). Previously there were no legal procedures for protecting the land surface. Ownership transformations have forced the need to establish a way of proceeding with contaminated areas. Remediation of these areas was financed by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, Natural Resources and Forestry. First legal provisions were unclear on liability for contamination and were based on a conservative approach, i.e. the obligation to unconditional soil remediation. Along with the accession of Poland to the EU, foreign entities with internal environmental guidelines began to enter the domestic market, expecting high-quality environmental services. Local consulting companies have started competing with foreign companies. The legal situation improved on 30 April 2007, with the introduction of the EU's 'polluter pays' principle. Perfect in its simplicity, this imperative regulated the issue of liability for contamination of the land surface, however, referring to the contamination that arose after that date. This period was also the beginning of real estate development boom that introduced a new type of client, for whom the land condition was important during the purchase/sale transactions. The real turning point for remediation in Poland came in September 2014. The legislator has refined the definition of remediation, clarified the liability for an 'old' or historic contamination, adopted the assessment of risk for human health, and determined in detail the assessment process of land surface contamination.

'Historic contamination' is deemed to have occurred before 30 April 2007, or due to activity carried out before this date, or has been caused by an emission and event that happened more than 30 years ago. Contamination that has occurred after that date is considered an environmental damage in the land surface.
The responsibility for historic contamination is borne by the land owners and they are obliged to perform remediation, unless they can prove or at least indicate a particular culprit. Liability for environmental damage is borne by the perpetrator.

The manner of carrying out investigation is defined in the Regulation. When assessing the contaminated land’s surface the following should be respected: the given soil classification based on the land usage, steps of identifying the land, the given reference methods, and the results of laboratory analysis should be compared to concentrations specified in the annex to the Regulation.  

Remediation is the subjection of soil and groundwater to the processes that will remove or reduce the amount of substances causing the risk, control them or limit their spreading.

At present, the legislator considers that it is purposeless to perform remediation against economic or technical realities, and as the objective is to bring the contaminated land to a state where it will not pose a threat to human health or to the environment, taking into account the way it is being used. Remediation may also involve natural self-cleaning.

The scope of the remediation activities depends on the assessment of the significant risk to human health or to the environment, to be carried out prior to the selection of the technical remedial measures. This assessment takes into account the characteristics of the contamination and the parameters of the environment and how humans could be exposed to it.

There is a possibility of exemption from the obligation to perform remediation, when the assessment shows that the contaminated soil does not pose a significant risk to human health or to the environment. Currently, work is underway on a regulation specifying reference methods for modelling the migration of contaminants in the land surface. A shortcoming of Polish legislation on land surface protection is the matter of groundwater remediation, which is not clearly regulated.

Arcadis offers comprehensive advisory services including contamination assessment, identification of risks to the environment and human health, formal and legal advices and remediation. Thanks to the actions of Arcadis a number of contaminated post-industrial sites have been remediated and transformed into a land suitable for development in attractive investment locations.

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