48 (143) 2021

Green Transformation

Recycling real estate – redeveloping contaminated sites

By Tomasz Galoch, EHS team leader, RSK Polska
Header tomasz galoch  2

You are thinking about a project in Poland. You want to develop a warehouse. Or a production facility. Or an office. Or a housing estate.

Your company supports sustainability, green transformation and promotes sound ESG management. You know about the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the EU’s ‘Green Deal’,  soil-sealing guidelines, the need to limit urban sprawl and prevent deforestation. You want to contribute to the sustainable transformation of cities and sound soil management. You found a prime property for development, but it has already been used before, and is – or may be – contaminated. And you have decided to recycle a brownfield and make the investment green from the first day of its life.

Past urban and industrial development has left behind vast areas of land which were historically developed, but which have since fallen out of use, or, are no longer used in a socially and economically viable way. There are many areas available within cities which are nicely located and unused. But they may come at a price of time and money that’s required to properly deal with their historic legacy.

This creates potential, which can both be approached as a problem as well as an opportunity.

How do you put this into Polish context, experience and practice? Please see our recipe, below…



Polish regulations are pretty restrictive. If a plot of land is identified as being contaminated, the most likely legal requirement will be a total or partial clean-up.

Before committing yourself, consider the current land development, binding zoning plan and your business goals. There are huge differences between the contamination management requirements for land designated for industrial, service, housing and other activities. The same levels of contaminants may be indicative for contamination in one zone, whilst being considered acceptable for another. In case of mixed zoning designation, the authorities will always consider the most stringent requirements as valid.


Even If you plan for an industrial facility in an area zoned for the typical “P/U” zoning (industrial/services), the soil will need to meet the strict requirements for non-industrial areas. This will mean much higher likelihood of clean-up and more likely clean-up costs. The same development on purely “P” (industrial) land designation may yield much better contamination management perspectives.


Investigate seriously and allow sufficient time and resources for this task. Do not assume that an innocent-looking property did not house potentially polluting activities at some time. Be aware that in Poland you may not obtain the same level of detailed archival information as in other countries.

For non-intrusive investigations purposes, there will be huge data gaps in Polish circumstances. These are caused by various things:

  • discontinuity of state administration (changes in 1914-1921, 1939, 1945 and 1989)
  • war losses of archives (the City of Warsaw lost between 80-90% of its pre-1939 documents)
  • intended secrecy (detailed topographic data was considered a state secret in communist times).

As an example: it is easier to find detailed topographic maps for some part of Poland dated prior to 1945 (German archives) than a correct map from the 1945-1989 period.

In the end, it’s more likely than not that you will need to perform an intrusive investigation to achieve acceptable level of certainty about the presence or lack of contamination.

Timewise, non-intrusive investigation will require a moderate amount of time. Unless you try to obtain official information through requests addressed to the authorities – these may take up several weeks.

Intrusive investigation takes definitely more time. Usually much more than expected. First it is time to arrange and perform the actual field activities. The analytic laboratory work will add to this with between seven and 11 working days of typical turnaround time. Identification of significant or unexpected concentrations may result in additional time need for double-checking the analyses (to exclude erroneous results). And any contamination discovered will need to be delineated in an additional intrusive investigation round. Speeding up and taking short cuts is a bad idea. If the land contamination assessment needs to be disclosed for the purposes of obtaining a valid clean-up decision, the investigation performed must comply with regulatory guidelines.

Reconcile plans with results, design your strategy

Depending on the level of contamination, there are various ways allowed for dealing with the contaminated material.

Some must be removed. In such case it can be beneficial if the required dig-up can fit in with the intended development earthworks. If there is leeway in designing the placement of new buildings, their location can be shifted to areas where excavations are necessary.

Some material, less contaminated, can be re-used provided there is good documentation (chain-of-custody) and in situ clean-up techniques.

For some contamination, a proper human health-hazard risk assessment may be conclusive for the authorities to refrain from issuing a clean-up order. However, this requires good-quality investigation results and proper reasoning. And still, the result may vary from case to case.

A proper approach to planning is always the right thing.

Execute clean-up and redevelopment

Try to stick to what you’ve planned for. Document properly what you are doing. The most important things are:

  • To account for the contaminated material: how much, how much of it is contaminated (non-hazardous or hazardous waste), how is it treated (dig up & removal, in situ treatment), what is the final result of treatment or the final destination of removed waste.
  • To provide conclusive evidence that the clean-up goal is achieved. You must be prepared for cases when during the clean-up, the contamination proves to be more extensive – it happens.
  • Do not spoil your work by introducing to your site new material that does not have clear and appropriate origin. If you have removed contamination but refilled the excavation with material of uncertain provenance, you may have wasted time and money.
  • Do not rush the development activities. Proper project management will allow you to clean up and develop in parallel, but be careful not spread the contamination.

Summing up

From RSK’s perspective there are several important take-aways:

  • Always assume you will need more time.
  • Allow for following proper procedures and be prepared to bear the costs, if you don’t, you may lose much more time and money.
  • Try to stick to your plans and design, but be flexible enough to adapt to the unexpected.

Redeveloping contaminated land can prove to be a win-win-win – for your business, for the local community, and for our planet!


Redeveloping brownfield sites - the future of development?    
Tuesday 22 June, 10:00-11:30

The BPCC and member firms will be discussing the huge potential of developing post-industrial lands. This event, aimed at investors and local authorities, looks at the challenges and solutions involved in the remediation of brownfield sites, showing the costs and the benefits, based on case studies of land that has been 'deep-cleaned' and is now serving new purposes.

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