Contaminated sites: introduction

How are contaminated sites to be handled? The remediation of the "sins of yesterday", is not an exact science. Rather it is an after-the-fact corrective fraught with many imponderables and surprises.

Times are changing: What was once tolerated can present a problem today. The unknown legacy left by a company long since gone out of existence crops up repeatedly in the course of a construction project, despite conscientious prior investigation of the intended construction site. Many sites have become contaminated and in need of remediation where for decades waste was deposited without a worry. This was often compatible with then up-to-date technology, or even permitted (or at least tolerated) by the authorities.

Contaminated sites management means taking on task for cleaning up the "sins of yesterday" so that the upcoming generations inherit as little environmental damage as possible. Yet this is a task replete with highly complex and interwoven aspects and not seldom fraught with insecurities. Especially in the case of industrial sites it is necessary to look back as far as possible in order to minimise the danger of bad, which is to say expensive and time-consuming, surprises.

And then there are the financial aspects: In contrast to waste management where the costs are distributed over the millions of producers of waste (e.g., the disposal of municipal waste) a contaminated site issue frequently affects only one single person or a small company. And since the corresponding remediation often comes at great expense, those obliged to remediate often find themselves at the limit of their financial abilities. To what extent may a company be called on to foot the bill in order to bring closure to the past without being pushed over the brink itself?

Remediation and especially questions of financing usually also touch on civil law issues or on the private sphere of the individuals involved. For an owner, the contamination of his property can result in a painful drop in its value or restrictions placed on its usage. If injustices are to be avoided, it is particularly important to deal with contamination in steps, conscientiously and on a case-by-case basis.

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Last modification 11.09.2018

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