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8th September 2022

The following blog has been written by Paul Nathanail in his personal capacity. Paul is a specialist in land contamination based in the UK who is known for his work on risk assessment and sustainable remediation. He contributes to the CRC CARE Risk to Remediation Masterclass, regularly keynotes at CleanUp and Ecoforum and is a member of several ALGA special interest groups.

I’ve got a little list…

#TLDR Contaminated site registers differ in content and categories of land, reflecting the law in individual states and territories. Consistent historical land use and environmental information is needed by buyers and developers of sites affected by contamination.

As a teenager, three books captured my imagination: the 2 volume Greek edition of the Junior Woodchuck's Guidebook that Huey, Dewey, and Louie consulted to get themselves and uncle, Donald Duck out of a scrape. The second was the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, now made real in the form of Wikipedia.  And the third? That was the late Jeremy Beadle’s book of lists to satisfy curiosity, answer questions and generally fill the mind. I still have a, rather worn, copy of that book somewhere on my bookshelves and my passion for lists has not abated.

In the early 1990s a trial list caused quite a stir. Section 143 of the UK Environmental Protection Act 1990 proposed public registers of potentially contaminated land. The s143 registers would ensure historical contamination was not forgotten and human health and the environment would be protected as post-industrial land was being redeveloped for housing. The registers were scrapped following, in the words of the Environment Minister, “suggestions that land values would be unfairly blighted because of the perception of the registers”.

Today in England, Wales and Scotland, the relatively short lists of contaminated land kept by each local authority only include land causing significant harm/ pollution or posing a significant possibility of significant harm/ pollution.

What’s included on lists of contaminated sites depends on the rules for inclusion. Different rules apply in different countries making it nigh on impossible to compare the scale of contaminated land across the world.  This is seen within the UK, across the European Union and within Australia.  The rules for being listed as contaminated land differ subtly, but significantly, between states and territories.

Victoria’s Priority Sites Register (PSR) lists sites posing an unacceptable risk to human health and/or the environment that are no longer fit for their approved land use without management or cleanup and have been issued with a clean-up or pollution abatement notice.  The PSR does not include all sites affected by contamination nor does it include sites where contamination is managed by voluntary agreements or by planning controls. 

New South Wales has lists of notified and regulated sites.  Under section 60 of the Contaminated Land Management Act 1997 (CLM Act) the EPA must be notified if contaminants or by-products have entered or could enter neighbouring land, the atmosphere, ground or surface water at levels above a guideline for the current or approved land use and someone has been, or foreseeably will be, exposed to the contaminant or by-product. Notified sites on the NSW EPA list of contaminated land may not always require regulation under the Act.  Significantly contaminated land warrants regulation to ensure its assessment and remediation. The NSW EPA triggers this by serving preliminary investigation orders and notices on responsible parties. Section 12 presents a list of matters for the EPA to consider when deciding if land is significantly contaminated land.

In South Australia, where this year’s CleanUp conference is being held, the EPA maintains the Site Contamination Index.  The index includes details of notifications, transfers of liability, proposals for voluntary assessment and remediation, audit notifications and reports, determinations and historic reports of the former South Australian Health Commission (SAHC reports), pre-1 July 2009 audit notifications and reports.

For anyone looking to buy, build or invest in land across Australia making an informed decision on the impairment of land value cannot simply rely on the public registers in different states – they hold different types of information about different categories of sites. As Victoria EPA notes, it is the responsibility of people who buy land to check the condition of the land they buy; caveat emptor.

A consistent compilation of historical land use and environmental information about land can support an objective evaluation of value and any constraints on safe and sustainable redevelopment of sites affected by contamination. 

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