Environmental guidance for your business in Northern Ireland & Scotland

Defining land contamination

What is land contamination?

Land contamination is a general term that describes land that is contaminated, for example, by substances such as:

  • heavy metals, eg arsenic, cadmium and lead
  • oils and tars
  • chemical substances and preparations, eg solvents
  • gases
  • asbestos
  • radioactive substances.

Land may be contaminated by accidents or spills, leaking underground storage tanks, past industrial uses and waste disposal.

Assessing land contamination

Land contamination investigations may be carried out in various circumstances, for example:

  • when land is sold, let, used or otherwise transferred
  • when land is proposed for development
  • when local authorities inspect land in their area
  • when an application is made for an environmental permit or other licence
  • if a pollution incident occurs.

In Northern Ireland you will need to show the Planning Service that you have assessed the contamination risks to health and the environment when you submit a planning application. If contamination is identified at the site, you must submit and agree a remediation strategy with the Planning Service that will make the site suitable for the proposed use. You will have to carry out the remediation as a condition of your planning approval.

In Scotland your local authority has a duty to inspect its area to identify whether there is any contaminated land under Part 2A of the Environmental Protection Act. This describes a specific type of land contamination where substances in, on or under the land cause, or could cause:

  • harm, in the case of radiological substances
  • significant harm
  • significant pollution of the water environment.

Part 2A deals with contamination caused by past uses of a site, such as former factories, mines, steelworks, refineries and landfills.

Local authorities will identify contaminated land, allocate responsibility for contamination where possible and take action to ensure land is cleaned up, known as remediation.

Further information

Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA): Contaminated land

Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA): Contaminated land

Scottish Government: Contaminated land statutory guidance

In this Guideline

Defining land contamination

Responsibilities for land contamination

Preventing land contamination

Environmental damage caused by land contamination

Cleaning up contaminated land

Buying land affected by contamination

Insuring against the risk of land contamination

Contaminated land environmental legislation


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