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Guide To Buying Potentially Contaminated Land

Whether you're an experienced developer or investor, or an individual looking to buy land for a self-build, you can use this guide to find advice on what to know and what to do before buying land or property potentially affected by contamination. While the health risks associated with living or working on contaminated land are more widely known, the risk from legal liability and remediation cost of unidentified contamination are rarely considered.

It is important that the nature and extent of potential land contamination is addressed before buying land, in order to avoid unexpected costs and potential health issues. However, this fact is often overlooked and too much credence is given to basic screening assessments. In comparison to the costs associated with unanticipated remediation or legal liability, detailed analysis of potential land contamination issues is negligible.

After having a slightly confusing and concerning result on an environmental search when buying a house, we weren't really sure what to do next. Joe and team were able to talk us through the options and advise on what the best course of action would be. We were able to do soil samples in a quick and straightforward (and cost effective) manner, and it's given us the confidence and clarity we need to take the next steps. - Jonathan Featonby

What To Know Before Buying Potentially Contaminated Land?

Effects of contamination on health - The negative effects of contaminated land on human health and the environment is largely dependant on the type and amount of contamination present. Some of the more severe effects of contamination on human health include the development of breathing disorders, skin diseases, birth defects, issues with cognitive development in children and cancer. These potential health impacts are most likely to occur in cases of long term exposure or with large concentrations of toxic contaminants and are among the worst case scenarios. The risk associated with buying and developing land without fully assessing the potential contamination risk is too great to ignore. When assessing the potential impact of contamination on human health (receptors), before buying potentially contaminated land, a range of contamination pathways are considered. These include direct soil and indoor dust ingestion and inhalation, skin contact with soils and dust, inhalation of vapours and ingestion of produce grown at the site. It should be noted that not all contaminants directly affect human health through the previously mentioned contamination pathways, for example, certain types of contamination may instead corrode or permeate into water pipes and other underground services.

You could be liable for fines and remediation costs - So who is responsible for the cost associated with 'cleaning up' contamination at a site if a person buys potentially contaminated land? According to the Environment Agency, the primary person responsible would be the polluter, this is commonly referred to as the polluter pays principle. In cases where the polluter isn't known then liability would fall to the owner or occupier of the land, even if you have only recently purchased the land. In the event of the local council or the Environment Agency carrying out remediation at a site, following an identified contaminant linkage, they may choose to pursue the polluter or site owner/ occupier for the cost. While these rules may seem unfair, especially in cases where the site has only recently been purchased and the new owner or occupier has not caused the contamination, they are necessary to ensure appropriate measures are taken to identify, manage and mitigate land contamination.

Remediation and it's financial impact - When buying any site, but especially potentially contaminated land, a key consideration will be the cost of acquisition and costs associated with planned development or maintenance at the site. If no contaminated land investigation is conducted prior to purchase, there is a considerable risk that contamination will go unidentified until either development commences or health and environmental impacts become visible. If this occurs, a range of negative financial impacts may arise, including a reduced resale value (at least until remediation is implemented and verified) and reduced net yield following development (due to remediation pushing up development costs). Identifying contamination and suitable remediation, including the anticipated cost of implementation, before buying potentially contaminated land, could mean the difference between a project being profitable and a project becoming a 'money pit'.

What To Do Before Buying Potentially Contaminated Site?

Assess the nature & extent contamination risk - There are a variety of ways to assess the nature and extent of contamination, before buying a potentially contaminated site, from utilisation of a phased approach contaminated land investigation to simple soil or water testing kits. The best option for you is likely to depend on your ability to access the site for physical testing or what stage you're at in the buying process. If you're in the early stages of buying potentially contaminated land, or the current owner won't allow water or soil samples to be taken, then an in-depth desk study, known as a Phase 1 Preliminary Risk Assessment, will be the most appropriate option. To get a more detailed assessment of the level of contamination at the site, it may be necessary to carry out an intrusive assessment. This would involve taking samples of soil or water and testing them in a UKAS accredited laboratory, to find out if there is any contamination present.

Identify remediation options & associated cost - UK legislation dictates that the land contamination risk assessment process is an integral part of any development project and if contamination is identified or suspected, development at the site may not be allowed until contamination is properly assessed and suitable remediation implemented. Carrying out an options appraisal may also allow you to avoid unnecessary and costly remediation work by identifying the most suitable and cost-effective remediation option(s) for your site. A remediation options appraisal will, as the name suggests, involve the identification and assessment of remediation options, to determine which options are the most suitable for dealing with potential or known contamination. There will often be a choice between a well-established strategy with a proven track record and a cheaper, less established strategy that may require post remediation monitoring for further verification. A cost-benefit analysis will need to be conducted, considering all stakeholders involved, in order to determine the best remediation option.

How Can Brownfield & Greenfield Land Be Contaminated?

The ways in which land can become contaminated, or the activities that may cause contamination, are too numerous to list in this guide, however, there are a few land uses and associated potentially contaminating activities that are relatively common and should be assessed further before buying potentially contaminated land.

Agricultural & Greenfield - You may think that natural activities like farming wouldn't cause contamination and, therefore, there would be no issues when buying agricultural land. They are generally in rural areas and unaffected by industrial activities - so how could they be contaminated? Agricultural activity can cause pollution issues in a variety of ways, including through the use of pesticides, asbestos in building materials, fuel spillages and burning organic materials. These can release contaminants such as heavy metals and hydrocarbons that can be harmful to human health and the environment.

Brownfield - The definition of brownfield land is any previously developed land that is not currently in use that may be potentially contaminated. The term is also used to describe land previously used for industrial or commercial purposes with known or suspected contamination, including soil contamination due to hazardous waste. Therefore, it's not hard to see why detailed analysis is important before buying potentially contaminated brownfield land.

Landfill - Through years of industrial activity and lack of environmental regulations on landfill sites, many areas have been subject to contamination, posing a potential risk to human health and the wider environment. Assessment of the potential land contamination risk from nearby landfill sites, through desk studies and site investigations, is enforced by the Environmental Protection Act 1990 which requires potential land contamination to be dealt with during the planning process. However, it would be prudent to assess the risk before buying potentially contaminated land, in order to avoid the costs associated with contamination remediation.

Meet Our Contaminated Brownfield Land Consultants

Consultants - Supervised by our Chief Technical Officer, Louis Turner, our fully comprehensive contaminated land conveyancing reports, are carried out by highly qualified consultants, combining over 30 years experience with recognised in-depth technical qualifications in identification of contamination and environmental issues, as well as the implementation of remediation work.

Management - Our wealth of experience in project management, logistics and environmental consulting allows us to provide efficient, friendly and high quality contaminated land conveyancing services for our clients. As a company, we believe that helping clients achieve their goals while simultaneously protecting the environment is a true "win-win" situation.

Partners - Our experienced, professional and qualified construction and consulting partners further extend the range of environmental and land contamination services we are able to provide. Our partners provide our clients with services such as waste management, remediation implementation and construction services.

Contact Us - Contact us and let us know your requirements. If you're looking to buy potentially contaminated land, it's important that you first conduct a suitable contaminated land investigation, carried out by professional environmental consultants. We're able to carry out contaminated land investigations for buying a wide range of potentially contaminated sites, allowing you to continue with the land purchase process. If your requirements are more complex, or you're looking for more information on what to know or do before buying potentially contaminated land, a more formal consultation may be necessary. Following initial consultation we can provide an outline proposal detailing how we can help and the costs involved.

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