Contaminated land

Contaminated land can present significant threats to the environment and risks to users of the land.

Land can become contaminated by a variety of substances, from heavy metals to agricultural waste. The environmental, financial and legal implications of this can be substantial.

The management and remediation of contaminated land that, in its current state, is causing or has the potential to cause significant harm or significant pollution of the water environment, is regulated by legislation contained within the Environmental Protection Act (1990) known as Part IIA.

Part IIA is further established in Scotland by the Contaminated Land (Scotland) Regulations 2000 (SSI 2000/178), as amended and the Scottish Government’s Statutory Guidance: Edition 2 provides the detailed framework for the definition, identification and remediation of contaminated land.

The Part IIA regime is underpinned by the core principles of the 'polluter pays' and a 'suitable for use approach'.

Whilst the local authorities are the primary regulator for the contaminated land regime, we also have certain responsibilities within the scope of this legislation to regulate activities and assist in the management and remediation of contaminated land.

How does land become contaminated?

A lack of knowledge about potential environmental hazards and poor practice in the past have led to land becoming contaminated: this has arisen from previous industrial processes, disposal of waste by landfilling and illegal tipping, and leaks and spills of raw materials, process effluents and fuels.

The purpose of Part IIA is specifically to deal with the legacy of historic contamination. Today, there is a much greater appreciation of the environmental impacts of industry and these are monitored, controlled and regulated by a comprehensive collection of other legislation such as the PPC Regulations, the Controlled Activities Regulations and the Environmental Liability Regulations.

Contaminants can range from solvents, oil, petrol and heavy metals to radioactive substances. The sources of contaminants are not just restricted to industrial processes: others may include agricultural activities, inadequate waste disposal, deposition from the atmosphere and everyday activities such as petrol distribution and dry cleaning.

The former Department of the Environment's industry profiles provide more information on the nature of land contamination associated with various industries.

What is our role in managing land contamination?

There are a number of different ways in which we manage land contamination. 

Monitoring, regulating and preventing future land contamination

The most significant element of our role is to regulate and control industries involved in the disposal of waste so that future land contamination is prevented. This is done through a number of pieces of legislation where we are the enforcing authority, such as the PPC Regulations. 

Enforcing Part IIA (historic contamination)

Where contaminated land has been designated as a special site, we act as the enforcing authority in securing remediation and maintain a public register of such sites.

We also act as the enforcing authority for the investigation, identification, characterisation and regulation of remediation of radioactively contaminated land.


When consulted on proposed developments by planning authorities, we also provide comment in relation to our regulatory duties, with particular regard to potential pollution of the water environment associated with land affected by contamination.

In addition, we have a duty to report on how land contamination affects the state of the state of Scotland’s environment.

Our 2009 report, Dealing with land contamination in Scotland, represented the first attempt to show the extent of contaminated and potentially contaminated land in Scotland. The report, which was prepared at the request of Scottish ministers, details the progress made in implementing the contaminated land regulatory regime element of Part IIA of the EPA.

What is remediation?

The term ‘remediation’ has a wide meaning under Part IIA, as it includes assessment of condition, undertaking remedial work and monitoring the condition.

The aim of remedial works should be to remove the significant pollutant linkage, either by reducing or removing the contamination source, breaking the pathway or removing the receptor and should be undertaken to such an extent that there is no significant harm (or significant possibility of such harm) to human health and no significant pollution (or significant possibility of such pollution) to the water environment.

Contaminated land is typically remediated to address environmental risks, risks to users of the sites, as well as financial and legal liabilities.

More information on the process of securing remediation can be found in Chapter C and Chapter D of the statutory guidance.

Radioactive contaminated land

The objectives for the extension of Part IIA to radioactive contamination are 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.

The Radioactive Contaminated Land (Scotland) Regulations 2007 and their amendments came into force in 2007 and the statutory guidancewas issued in 2008.

Under these regulations, we have the responsibility for the investigation, identification, characterisation and regulation of remediation of radioactive contaminated land.

Scottish vacant and derelict land survey

Not all vacant or derelict land is necessarily contaminated, but it can be one of many useful starting points as an information resource.

The Scottish vacant and derelict land survey presents a summary of the survey’s most recent results in collaboration with the Scottish Government and the planning authorities. 

What about 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 Scottish Government has issued advice to planning authorities on the development of contaminated land, in the form of Planning Advice Note 33and further guidance on planning and contaminated land can be found within the Planning section of our website

While the planning authorities are the lead regulators they may consult with us, particularly when drafting conditions covering areas for which we have regulatory responsibility.

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 need to support the move towards more sustainable development. This involves building on previously developed land (brownfield sites) – some of which may be contaminated – so as to preserve greenfield sites.