Contaminated land

Causes of contaminated land

The legal definition of contaminated land is: 'Any land which appears to the local authority ... to be in such a condition by reason of substances in, on or under the land, such that:

(a) significant harm is being caused, or there is significant possibility of such harm being caused, or pollution of controlled waters is being, or is likely to be, caused.
(b) In determining if land should be regarded as contaminated land, the local authority must have regard to appropriate guidance issued by the Secretary of State.

Past uses of land and human activities, mostly poorly-regulated industrial and waste disposal activities, are the most common sources of contamination. For example pits where gravel has been extracted with the void then filled in an unregulated way, or former gas holder sites which go on to become housing developments. Until relatively recently, industry's harmful effect on land was not well understood. Consequently, waste was disposed of where convenient and developments were built with little regard for former land use.

Our legislative duties

Contaminated land has only really been considered by developers and planners since 1988.

Our duties under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 which cover land not undergoing development are

  • to inspect areas from time to time to identify contaminated land. See our PDF icon contaminated land strategy for how we identify and deal with such land
  • to determine whether any site is contaminated and designate special sites under guidance from the Environment Agency
  • to act as the enforcing authority for all contaminated land which is not designated as a special site
  • to establish who should bear responsibility for the remediation of any affected land
  • to maintain a public register of regulatory action taken to deal with contamination

We will investigate previous land uses in order of priority and assess any previous site investigations and remedial works already carried out. We may visit sites and undertake tests to find out whether these areas are contaminated.

Is brownfield land contaminated?

Brownfield land is land which has been previously developed, often for commercial or industrial uses. Brownfield and indeed any land may have some contamination on it, but may not meet the definition of contaminated land.

What are the Environment Agency's responsibilities?

Special cases of contaminated land are those which

  • affect rivers, aquifers and water supplies
  • have radioactive substances or
  • are former Ministry of Defence land

If we identify a site in such a special case, we pass it on to be dealt with by the Environment Agency.

Get in touch about environmental health

The quickest way to contact us is by using our online forms which are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you need to speak to us give us a call during office hours and talk to our Customer Services team who will be happy to help.