Asbestos in soils: What does 2017 have in store?

After almost a quarter of a century of silence, there has been a flurry of initiatives and guidance relating to asbestos in soil, made ground and construction and demolition materials since the publication of Ciria C733 in 2014.

Many in the land development industry were aware of the potential issue of asbestos contamination prior to this but it often played second fiddle to ‘mainstream’ contaminants, such as heavy metals and PAHs.  Why was this? Perhaps many worried that if asbestos was found clients would not appreciate the remedial costs or they considered that in the absence of an SGV, or similar, it is too difficult to assess, or perhaps the insurance and health and safety implications serves as a disincentive.  Whatever the reasons, the cat is well and truly out of the bag and regulators are now aware of its prevalence and increasingly insisting on its consideration as a potential contaminant at many post-industrial brownfield sites.

But many, if not all, the historic problems still remain.  Indeed, as an industry, we may have identified several others in recent times, including disposal costs (in particular landfill tax rates), issues about the REACH classification of recycled aggregates, quality and comparability of lab results and the thorny issue of how CAR (Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012) applies to site investigation and remediation activities.  But hopefully many of these will, at least partially, be addressed in 2017.

After what has by all accounts been a difficult and protracted process, it is likely that the Environment Agency’s Standing Committee of Analysts will publish the ‘Blue Book’ method for identifying and quantifying asbestos fibres and ACM fragments in soils, construction and demolition materials and products, and other associated materials in early 2017.  This should provide a level playing field for lab data – although the problem of relating %age asbestos in soil to the risks caused by inhaling airborne fibres will still remain.

After the JIWG published CAR-SOIL in July, which provides a HSE-supported interpretation of how CAR applies to contaminated soils, it is likely that the long-awaited update to the HSE’s Analyst’s Guide (HSG248) will also appear during the first half of 2017, following a consultation in 2016.  Hopefully, this will clarify the soil sampling and analysis requirements necessary to conduct the risk assessments of acute occupational exposure of workers disturbing asbestos-containing soils and made ground, which are mandated under CAR.

The JIWG has also suggested that some chapters of this much anticipated Industry Code of Practice will be released early in the New Year, particularly those relating to wastes and how REACH affects the reuse of site-won aggregate.  Hopefully, this will quickly be followed by the publication of the entire Code, which together with Ciria's “Asbestos in soil and made ground good practice site guide” (C765) to be published in January 2017, will provide the contaminated land sector with much needed guidelines for safe working practices and CAR-compliance.  However, this may well require considerable changes to current procedures and possibly a major shake-up of the industry’s entire structure.

But after all the SI results are in, what will 2017 bring in terms of assessing the risks of chronic exposure to future site users?  It is believed that a research report has been submitted to Defra relating to their SP1014 project, which is intended to determine typical background levels of dispersed fibres in urban and rural soils.  But given Defra’s current conundrums relating to Brexit, we will have to see if and when the output from this project sees the light of day.  And then if the results provide any helpful insight, given that it is airborne fibres we are interested in and not those simply present in the ground.

In the meantime SoBRA is leading several industry efforts to address the many uncertainties highlighted in Ciria C733.  At their December Conference, they hinted that their immediate goal was to develop a UK equivalent to the Dutch Negligible Risk Level – a concentration in air that poses negligible risks to the entire population.  This will be an interesting challenge and likely to be hotly debated in 2017.  As the risks from asbestos solely relate to airborne fibres, acceptance of such a ‘safe level on air’ is a prerequisite for any discussion of a ‘safe level in soil’.

So, all in all, there is a lot to look forward to in 2017 with respect to asbestos-containing soils, but whether the contaminated land industry will be better placed to provide problem holders with cost-effective, practical and reliable ‘off-the-shelf’ advice in relation to asbestos in soils, made ground and construction and demolition materials by 2018, and allow the UK to fill the much-reported housing gap, we will have to see.  But one thing is for sure, there will be much for us to read and discuss in the months ahead and the need for site-by-site specialist advice will remain as strong as ever.

Dr Richard Ogden (LQM) and Dr Paul Nathanail (LQM)

CIRIA's latest report C765 Asbestos in soil and made ground good practice site guide will be launched via webinar on January 26. To register to attend this webinar please click here.