Soil Quality

Soil is one of the most important natural resources of our planet: it underpins 90% of all human food, fibre and fuel production, and performs many other vital functions such as contributing to biodiversity conservation, climate change mitigation, and climate adaptation of ecosystems. Soil also plays a vital role in the storage, filtration and transformation of various substances, thereby controlling key natural life cycles. Furthermore, soil has a role as a habitat and gene pool, and also serves as a platform for human activities, landscape and heritage.

However, the lack of attention to soil degradation can be seen not only in the lack of European directives or soil protection targets, but also in the scarcity of data. According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), while 300,000 sites across the EU have been identified as definitely or potentially contaminated, the best estimate is that there are 1.5 million contaminated areas. 

A group of concerned citizens, environmental and other NGOs, including the EEB, are currently seeking support for the People4Soil European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). Should this petition successfully gather a million signatures from across Europe, the European Commission will be obliged to propose new European legislation to protect soil. 

Soil contamination from industry

Industry is a major contributor to soil contamination. The report Soil Contamination widespread in Europe (EEA) shows that local soil contamination in 2011 was estimated at 2.5 million potentially contaminated sites across Europe, of which about 45% have been identified to date. About one third of an estimated total of 342,000 contaminated sites have already been identified and about 15% of these 342,000 sites have been remediated. However, there are substantial differences in the underlying site definitions and interpretations across countries.

The EEA report reveals that managing contaminated land in Europe costs an estimated € 6.5 billion per year. Much of this is paid by companies, but the public is also paying a high price. The largest cause of soil contamination is poor waste management, so preventing waste in the first place could reduce the burden to society. On average, 42% of the total expenditure on the management of contaminated sites comes from public budgets. Around 81% of annual national expenditures for the management of contaminated sites is spent on remediation measures, while only 15% is spent on site investigations.

Overall, production sectors contribute more to local soil contamination than service sectors, while mining activities are important sources of soil contamination in some countries.

In the production sector, metal industries are reported as the most polluting, whereas the textile, leather, wood and paper industries are minor contributors to local soil contamination. The most frequent contaminants are mineral oils and heavy metals.

The following graphs from the 2014 JRC Report: Progress in the management of contaminated sites in Europe provide further information: 

Key IED provisions on soil protection

The objectives set in The European Commission’s Thematic Strategy for Soil Protection cannot be met without further reductions in emissions from industrial activities, as recognised in the Recital 4 of the IED. The IED is to date the only instrument which includes soil protection-related requirements at EU level.

IED-regulated plant permits should, among other elements, include emission limit values for polluting substances (or equivalent parameters or technical measures), appropriate requirements to protect the soil and groundwater and monitoring requirements (IED art 14). With regard to soil protection in particular, it is clearly stipulated that permit conditions should include appropriate measures to prevent emissions to soil and regular surveillance of those measures to avoid leaks, spills, incidents or accidents occurring during the use of equipment and during storage. Moreover, in order to detect possible soil and groundwater pollution at an early stage and, therefore, to take appropriate corrective measures before the pollution spreads, the monitoring of soil and groundwater for relevant hazardous substances is also necessary. 

Periodic monitoring shall be carried out at least once every 10 years for soil, unless such monitoring is based on a systematic appraisal of the risk of contamination. This website’s dedicated monitoring page provides further information.  

The IED requires plant operators to create a “baseline report” (IED art 12.e) specifically addressing the state of the soil quality of the industrial site and serving as a reference baseline for soil protection and site remediation actions. The minimum requirements relating to the “baseline report” are set in Article 22(2) of the IED, which needs to be prepared by the operator and submitted to the permitting authority “whenever the activity involves the use, production or release of relevant hazardous substances and having regard to the possibility of soil and groundwater contamination at the site.” There is quite a level of subjectivity involved in relation to what a “relevant” substance is, and around what constitutes a “possibility” of soil or groundwater contamination. The European Commission’s guidance on how to draw up a baseline report is not endorsed by the EEB since it provides too much flexibility for operators to circumvent an in-depth assessment and avoid remediation obligations.

The baseline report shall contain at least the following information:

  • Information on the present use and, where available, on past uses of the site;
  • Where available, existing information on soil and groundwater measurements that reflect the state at the time the report is drawn up or, alternatively, new soil and groundwater measurements having regard to the possibility of soil and groundwater contamination by those hazardous substances to be used, produced or released by the installation concerned.

Upon definitive cessation of the activities, the state of soil and groundwater contamination shall be assessed and where the installation has caused significant pollution of soil (or groundwater) by relevant hazardous substances (compared to the state established in the baseline report), the operator shall take the necessary measures to address that pollution and return the site to its original state.

Where the operator is not required to prepare a baseline report, they still shall, upon definitive cessation of the activities, take the necessary actions aimed at the removal, control, containment or reduction of relevant hazardous substances, so that the site ceases to pose any “significant risk” to human health or the environment (IED art 22).

The baseline report should be a practical tool that permits, as far as possible, a quantified comparison between the state of the site described in that report and the state of the site upon definitive cessation of activities, in order to ascertain whether a significant increase in pollution of soil or groundwater has taken place.

When does a baseline report need to be written?

For new installations coming into operation after 7 January 2013, a baseline report needs to be elaborated before effective operation begins.

For existing installations, the baseline report should be prepared and submitted to the competent authority before a permit for an installation is updated for the first time after 7 January 2013.

This is where the relevance of provisions on Soil Quality (pollution prevention and remediation) within the BAT-Conclusions comes into play. In fact, a permit writer would only establish specific soil quality requirements if that is triggered by clear requirements elaborated within the sector-specific BAT conclusions, which in turn trigger a permit review.

What are the BREFs supposed to tackle?

Currently there is a clear lack of soil protection and remediation-specific requirements in the revised BAT conclusions. Yet it is very clear from the BREF review rules that the information exchange and BAT conclusions shall address soil protection and site remediation. Entry points where soil protection and site remediation shall be addressed would concern the following BREFs in particular:

  • (interim) Waste Treatment BREF (WT BREF)
  • (interim) Surface Treatment with Solvents and Wood Preservation with Chemicals (STS BREF)
  • A dedicated BREF on soil protection and remediation.

The first WT BREF draft contains a section on BAT conclusions for physico-chemical treatment of excavated contaminated soil e.g. thermal treatment or water washing. However the European Commission decided to exclude in situ contaminated soil, contrary to request by Denmark and Belgium, supported by the EEB. Techniques to decontaminate soil in situ are therefore not addressed anywhere.

The activities covered by STS BREF, in particular Wood Preservation with Chemicals, involve a high number of hazardous pollutants. Ireland, supported by the EEB, proposed to address techniques for decontamination in this BREF. This was opposed by the European Commission.

Your contribution…

The EEB aims to prevent soil pollution and to therefore set BAT requirements which aim to safeguard pollution prevention first, but which also include robust monitoring requirements. Soil remediation activities shall be taking place in particular in case of presence of hazardous pollutants, especially PBTs.

Considering the recent experience in BREF reviews, the EEB seeks the following information:

  • Good practice examples of soil pollution prevention activities (IED activities);
  • Examples of in situ soil decontamination or site remediation activities on IED sites with information on techniques used;
  • Information on BAT on physico-chemical treatment of excavated contaminated soil;
  • Information on BAT on soil pollution prevention and remediation in the sector of Wood preservation with chemicals;
  • Examples of good baseline reports and implementation reports at the national level on this provision.

Please provide information to

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