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Global Approaches to Soil Protection and Revitalization

Two recent initiatives in Europe and the United States are aimed at creating new policies and guidance for soil cleanup, protection, and land revitalization. While the European Union is focused on a comprehensive soil protection strategy for all member countries, the United States is undertaking an initiative to provide overarching guidance on a variety of existing programs that promote land revitalization. These proposed initiatives may affect how industrial property owners manage risks at contaminated sites, and present opportunities to collaborate with local communities and regulators to restore land for creative new uses.

Proposed soil initiatives may affect how industrial property owners manage risks at contaminated sites, and present collaborative opportunities with local communities and regulators to restore land. 

The European Soil Protection Framework Directive

While many European Union countries have their own soil policies and guidelines, the Environmental Commission of the European Parliament has developed a comprehensive soil protection strategy. The European Soil Protection Framework Directive (SPFD) is aimed at the protection and sustainable use of soil across Europe, and is based on two guiding principles: 1) preventing further soil degradation and preserving its functions, and 2) restoring degraded soils to a level of functionality consistent at least with current and intended use. While common criteria are set in the directive, member states will be required to enact the directive by establishing risk acceptability and identifying risk areas, setting reduction targets and actions for those areas, and establishing programs of measure and enforcement to achieve them.

Industrial property owners in Europe should be aware that soil investigations are not immediately required for all industrial sites under the SPFD. However, under the directive, a site owner will be responsible for a site investigation and risk assessment if they intend to sell all or a portion of the site, change the usage of the site, or alter or enlarge the site in any way (much like state regulations in the United States). Industrial operators will be required to conduct phase 1 and phase 2 investigations, followed by a risk assessment. Appropriate remediation strategies must be developed within 7 years.

Under the draft guidelines, the schedule of a systematic investigation of contaminated sites (i.e., those sites that are for sale, have changed usage, or altered) in Europe is:

  • 10 percent of all EU sites must be investigated in 5 years
  • 60 percent of all EU sites must be investigated in 15 years
  • 100 percent of all EU sites must be investigated in 20 years

While the directive did not pass the European Parliament in its December 2007 meeting, it is expected to be enacted in the near future, and forward-thinking industrial property owners have an opportunity to take action now. Even though the directive allows for phased investigation of sites over a 20-year period, member states will also be required to draw up national remediation strategies within 7 years, establishing a prioritization of sites that pose a significant risk to human health and timetables for implementation.

Property owners could benefit by conducting voluntary site investigations and any necessary risk assessments early to provide authorities with a sound basis for establishing priorities for remediation. Conducting these actions before the directive is transferred into national law means the investigations are completed under present - and perhaps less stringent - regulations. While an owner may be asked to conduct additional studies under the new directive, an approved investigation and potential remediation plan completed under current laws cannot be changed in a later phase. Waiting to conduct such actions after the directive becomes law could result in more expensive, time consuming, and complicated procedures due to enforced regulations.

EPA Land Revitalization Initiative

In the United States, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is embarking on an initiative to revitalize land by restoring contaminated sites. The EPA Land Revitalization Initiative emphasizes that cleanup and reuse are mutual goals and that property reuse should be an integral part of clean-up decisions. Incorporating efforts from other programs, such as Superfund, Brownfields, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the plan promotes cross-program coordination on land reuse projects to ensure that contaminated property is appropriately restored. Through numerous EPA efforts and partnerships with other organizations (e.g., Wildlife Habitat Council), this initiative will be promoted to help protect ecological and human health with sustainable redevelopment efforts, such as the use of green building and green space designs.

EPA advocates revitalizing previously contaminated properties so that the land can be reused for community development or green space projects. Through cooperative partnerships with EPA and local community organizations, industries have the opportunity to not only fulfill their cleanup responsibilities, but expand the scope of the remediation project and be recognized for efforts toward sustainable redevelopment and corporate responsibility.

Learn more about the European Soil Protection Directive.

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