Contaminated land—definition of contaminated land

The following Environment practice note provides comprehensive and up to date legal information covering:

  • Contaminated land—definition of contaminated land
  • What is contaminated land?
  • Definition
  • Land
  • Substances
  • Harm
  • Controlled waters
  • Radioactivity

Contaminated land—definition of contaminated land

What is contaminated land?

'Contaminated land' is a specific legal term defined in the Environmental Protection Act 1990, Pt IIA (EPA 1990).

The contaminated land regime imposes strict and retrospective liability. It requires local authorities (LAs) to identify contaminated land in their areas and allocate liability for historically contaminated land.

'Land contamination' is a general term used to describe any land that may be contaminated in some way, but not necessarily at levels that attract contaminated land liability.

LAs must act in accordance with the statutory guidance issued by Defra or the Welsh Government when determining whether land is contaminated. Revised statutory guidance came into force in April 2012.

The starting point for considering land affected by contamination is that it is not ‘contaminated land’ unless there is reason to consider otherwise. LAs should only determine land to be contaminated:

  1. in a minority of cases

  2. after a risk assessment has been undertaken

  3. where there are unacceptable risks, and

  4. where there is no appropriate alternative solution for dealing with the contamination

For further information, see Practice Notes:

  1. Contaminated land—risk assessment

  2. Contaminated land determinations


Contaminated land is any land which appears to the relevant LA to be in such a condition, because of substances in, on or under the land, that:

  1. significant harm is being caused

  2. there is a significant possibility of significant harm being caused

  3. significant pollution

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