Contaminated land

Business: Waste Environment

    1. What is contaminated land?

    ‘Contaminated land’ is used in general terms to describe land polluted by:

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

    Legal definition

    Contaminated land also has a legal definition as land where substances could cause:

    • significant harm to people or protected species
    • significant pollution of surface waters or groundwater

    This definition refers to contamination caused by past uses of a site, such as former factories, mines, steelworks, refineries and landfills.

    Download ‘Contaminated land statutory guidance’ (PDF, 913KB)

    Radioactive land

    Land is defined as radioactive when a person could be harmed by spending time on land where radioactivity is present.

    Special sites

    Some types of contaminated land are classed as special sites. This includes land that:

    • seriously affects drinking waters, surface waters (for example lakes and rivers) and important groundwater sources
    • has been, or is being, used for certain industrial activities, such as oil refining or making explosives
    • is being or has been regulated using a permit issued under the integrated pollution control or pollution prevention and control regimes
    • has been used to get rid of waste acid tars
    • is owned or occupied by the Ministry of Defence
    • is contaminated by radioactivity
    • is a nuclear site

    Once a local council has decided that an area is a special site, it is regulated by:

    2. Who decides if land is contaminated

    Your land could be investigated for a number of reasons, including when:

    • land is sold, let, used or otherwise transferred
    • land is proposed for development
    • local councils inspect land in their area
    • an application is made for an environmental permit or other licence
    • land is polluted

    If the land is contaminated the local council will decide who is responsible.

    If your local council finds contaminated land it will tell:

    • the Environment Agency
    • the owner of the land
    • any occupiers of the land
    • any person who appears to be responsible for the clean-up (known as an appropriate person)

    3. Who has to clean up the land?

    Local councils or the relevant agency will decide who is responsible for cleaning up the land. This is:

    5. Buying contaminated land

    If you’re buying contaminated land, you could get financial help to clean it up and make sure it is suitable for use.

    You could get:

    • capital allowances
    • an exemption from stamp duty
    • enhanced tax relief

    Read about financial help you could get on the HM Revenue & Customs website.

    Who is responsible for cleaning up contaminated land and how you know if your business is on a contaminated site