UK starts mapping contaminated land

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Britain's hideous industrial legacy of contaminated land, so big no one knows its true extent, is to be cleaned up on a systematic basis, the Government will announce today.

Britain's hideous industrial legacy of contaminated land, so big no one knows its true extent, is to be cleaned up on a systematic basis, the Government will announce today.

From next month, local councils will be forced to ascertain exactly how much such land is in their areas, and arrange for it to be dealt with. The companies or individuals who caused the contamination will first be responsible, or by default the owners of the land might have to pay.

At the moment, badly polluted land is only cleaned up on an ad-hoc basis, under the nuisance laws, if it is found to be a threat to human health, and the catalogue of sites contaminated by industrial processes is extremely vague. The Environment Agency estimates that there could be anything from 5,000 to 20,000 such sites.

However, the duty to be given to local authorities from 1 April to determine the exact extent of contamination in their areas will produce a precise national register, which is likely to be ready in just over a year.

Ten years ago, the Tory government attempted a similar exercise but backed down over fears of development blight. The present government is more concerned by the threat from contamination itself.

"If the true state of contamination of a site is known, I accept that it probably wouldn't be built on," the Environment minister Michael Meacher said. "But I think that's quite right." Mr Meacher has sent letters to 350 industrial companies, asking them to survey land they own, and to clean up contamination before they are forced to.

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