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

By Alexander Wilhelm

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.