The report supports the efforts of the EU’s Seventh Environment Action Programme.

According to a report prepared by the Joint Research Centre (JRC) — the European Commission’s science and knowledge service — countries across Europe are making progress on tackling soil contamination. The report[i] states that the management of contaminated sites in Europe has improved substantially. The survey prepared by the JCR scientists included 39 countries, of which 25 are EU Member States. Within the EU there are an estimated 2.8 million sites where artificial surface indicates that polluting activities have occurred in the past. According to national and regional inventories of countries that replied to the report’s questionnaire, more than 650,000 sites are registered where polluting activities took or are taking place. The number of remediated sites or sites under aftercare measures has increased from 57,000 to 65,500 in the last five years. Although these inventories are more accurate than ever before, investigations of more than 170,000 sites are still pending.

Soil contamination means reduced soil quality because harmful substances resulting from human activity are present. In general, such contamination violates private or public interests, and can even harm human health or the environment. According to the report, mineral oils and heavy metals are the most frequent contaminants. The excavation and the off-site disposal of contaminated plots are the most frequently used remediation techniques — also known as “dig-and-dump.” With the help of the provided data, JCR scientists have revealed that an average of €4.3 billion is spent to tackle soil contamination in the surveyed countries, of which more than 42% is taken from public funds. According to the report, this is due to the divergent application of the “polluter-pays” principle, which is applicable to historical contamination only in a few countries. Those differences in the legal treatment of historical contamination should be assessed carefully not only by the current owner, but also by any prospective buyer.

Background

The EU’s Seventh Environment Action Programme “Living well, within the limits of our planet,” adopted on 20 November 2013, determines that reducing soil contamination is an important objective. The programme’s objectives include ensuring that countries within the EU achieve the following goals by 2020:

  • Manage land sustainably
  • Protect soil adequately
  • Improve remediation of contaminated sites noticeably

In following these goals, the EU and Member States have also committed themselves to increasing efforts to reduce soil erosion and to augment soil organic matter.

The data from the report is required to develop the implementation of the programme. Since 2001, European institutions have used a special indicator to assess how remediation of industrially polluted sites has developed. In 2017, the methodology used to reflect the status of contaminated sites was revised to adjust the range of definitions used by the 29 respondent countries. This recent JRC report summarizes the results of the revised approach. The summarized results will then form the basis of an updated indicator, and will mean that countries are able to assess the trends in site remediation more precisely.

A comprehensive solution: seeking a common European framework

The report highlights the remaining uncertainties and differences among countries between data collection and management efforts. However, the report also underlines the efforts made by the ad hoc working group on contaminated sites and brownfields. The group includes members of national reference centers, who aim to achieve harmonization in data collection and management procedures.

Countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, and the UK — who have been addressing the problem of soil contamination for at least three decades — focus on remediating sites with known contamination. Countries with a shorter history of addressing soil contamination are currently focusing on identifying contaminated sites.

Across European countries, there is a wide range of soil types, land uses, depths of groundwater tables, and site and building characteristics. Consequently, dealing with soil contamination in Europe requires flexibility in the tools used for site-specific risk assessment. However, JCR scientists emphasize that the data collected from the countries are not fully comparable, due to a lack of commonly accepted European terminology and guidelines. A common European framework would support the prevention and remediation of soil contamination.

As long as there is no uniform legal framework for soil contamination across Europe, it will remain essential to assess the specific legal requirements in each individual country.