Contaminated Land

Whether you are a member of the public, an academic worker, a consultant, an owner/occupier of contaminated land or any other party with an interest in such land, this section of SEPA's website will provide you with background information on most aspects of contaminated land. Others organisations are highlighted which may be contacted for further information.

How land is contaminated

Over the past 100 years, the industrial revolution saw the expansion of the steel, coal, chemical and other industries and with this expansion came huge economic and social growth. At the time of expansion, the consequences of industrial development to the environment were not fully understood and a sustainable future was not planned. Today, there is a much greater appreciation of the environmental impacts of industry and releases to the environment are regulated to guard against adverse impacts.

Previous industrial processes disposed of waste by tipping it on the land and raw materials and fuel were often spilt, contaminating the land at the sites. Even today land contamination may arise from unintentional leaks and spills at various sites. Contaminants can range from solvents, oil, petrol and heavy metals to radioactive substances. The sources of contaminants are not just restricted to industrial processes: other sources may include agriculture activities, inadequate waste disposal, deposition from the atmosphere and every day activities such as petrol distribution and dry cleaning.

For further information on the nature of land contamination associated with various industries, reference should be made to the Department of the Environment's Industry Profiles external link.

Why is contaminated land of concern?

Contaminated land is of concern if it presents a threat to the environment or if it poses risks to users of the land. Such land is seen to have potential environmental liabilities, which are also of concern to land owners due to their financial and legal implications. Financial liabilities include reduced land values or the requirement to fund remediation.

As contamination can take a variety of forms, so it may impact in a variety of ways. Depending on the concentration and nature of the substances present, harm may be caused to human health, plants, wildlife, crops, property or ecological systems as a whole. Harm to human health can be caused in a variety of ways and the impacts may range from skin and respiratory irritation to cancer, birth defects or even death. Exposure to contaminants may occur in a variety of situations. Polluted dust can be inhaled, both on the site and in the surrounding area. Small children may directly consume the soil if they play in contaminated areas. Other exposure routes are skin contact, ingestion of vegetables that have taken up contaminants or have contaminated soil attached to them, inhalation of volatile contaminants and asphyxiating gases.

Pollution to rivers, groundwater, lochs and ponds can occur by the leaching of contaminants out of the soil into water courses through the natural drainage of the soil or through surface runoff of water eroding and transporting contaminant materials to water courses. This in turn can effect aquatic plant and animal life and contaminate human drinking water. Some contaminants may also pose a fire or explosion hazard or they may be corrosive and attack building materials or services.

Why remediate contaminated land?

Contaminated land is typically remediated to address environmental risks, risks to users of the sites, as well as financial and legal liabilities. In addition, with more and more pressure being put on our countryside for the development of new industries, business and also housing, there is an increasing tendency to build on existing sites so as to preserve greenfield sites for future generations. Some of these existing sites may be contaminated. The government has set targets for housing that 60% of all new housing should be built on existing "brownfield" sites to preserve our countryside. This requires the risks associated with brownfield sites due to chemical contamination be addressed before the sites can be redeveloped.

SEPA's Involvement

SEPA is involved with contaminated land in a number of ways:

  • we regulate industries so that future land contamination is prevented
  • we control the disposal of waste so that future land contamination is prevented
  • when consulted by planning authorities, we provide comment in relation to our regulatory duties, in particular pollution of the water environment associated with land affected by contamination
  • we issue licences as appropriate for activities associated with the remediation of contaminated land
  • Under the provisions of Part IIA of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 SEPA also has a duty to cause to be remediated, land designated as a special site
  • The Radioactive Contaminated Land (Scotland) Regulations 2007 come into force at the end of October 2007. SEPA has the  responsibility under these regulations for the investigation, identification, characterisation and regulation of remediation of radioactive contaminated land (RCL). The Statutory Guidance was issued 31 March 2008 and is available here external link or printed copy from

The objectives for the extension of Part IIA to radioactive contamination remain the same: to provide a system for the identification and remediation of land where contamination is causing lasting exposure to radiation for human beings and where "intervention" is liable to be "justified". The same principles apply, namely "the polluter pays" and the "suitable for use" approach. Additionally,the new legislation ensures that the UK complies with its obligations to transpose and implement adequately articles 48 and 53 of the Basic Safety Standards Directive (Council Directive 96/29/Euratom) (BSS Directive) which lays down the basic safety standards for the protection of the health of workers and the general public against the dangers arising from ionising radiation.

SEPA's Dealing with land contamination in Scotland report can be downloaded from our land publications page. A summary version of the report is available at the same address.

The Scottish regulations will cover the water environment both as a pathway and as a receptor and will include "significant harm" or possibility of such to biota, ecosystems as well as harm to humans.

Planning and contaminated land

The planning system has a key role to play in addressing the problem of land contamination. The risks associated with contaminated land are a material planning consideration and are addressed by the planning authority in the preparation of development plans and in the determination of planning applications. The planning authority may consult with SEPA, particularly when drafting conditions covering areas for which SEPA has regulatory responsibility. The Scottish Executive have issued advice to planning authorities on the development of contaminated land, in the form of Planning Advice Note 33 external link. Further guidance on SEPA's role in planning and contaminated land can be found here.