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‘Environmental Forensics’ could cut the cost of brownfield development

The emerging scientific discipline of ‘Environmental Forensics’ could make it easier to prove, to the satisfaction of a court of law, who is responsible for instances of pollution.

In particular, it could play a key role in facilitating development of contaminated brownfield sites by cutting the cost of associated legal proceedings and reducing the time required to reach negotiated settlements between those involved.

The current status of environmental forensics will be described at this year’s BA Festival of Science in Norwich, with particular emphasis on its potential contribution to the future development of brownfield sites.

Building on brownfield sites has huge potential to meet a range of society’s industrial, commercial, residential and leisure needs, but many sites are polluted in some way (e.g. by chemical contamination of the soil or groundwater). The EU Environmental Liability Directive due to come into force in 2007 will make it necessary to determine who is responsible for such pollution so they can be required to meet the cost of remediation (i.e. the ‘polluter pays’ principle).

By determining scientifically and incontrovertibly who caused an incidence of pollution, environmental forensics will make legal proceedings arising from the Directive quicker, more straightforward, and therefore less expensive. This will remove some obstacles to brownfield development. It will also be of benefit to major projects already under way, for example, the redevelopment of the site for the 2012 Olympic Games in East London and the Clyde Gateway project in Glasgow, which includes the potential site for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Although the individual skills that environmental forensics incorporates (e.g. ecological impact analysis, chemical analysis, hydrogeology etc.) are already well-established, the objective of this emerging discipline is to integrate these skills and apply them in a legal context. In particular, it aims to harness the significant body of experience that exists in the field of forensic science to help guide investigation and evaluation of incidents of environmental pollution.

A major research programme at Queen’s University Belfast, funded by the EPSRC, is currently working to promote the application of forensic science in the field of environmental science and to achieve this by focusing on real, live issues and cases. Professor Bob Kalin, who is leading the research programme, will deliver the presentation at the BA Festival on 8th September.

Professor Kalin will explain how environmental forensics focuses on identifying how and when contamination took place, its extent and impact, and – where appropriate – whether there have been any attempts to illegally ‘cover up’ an incident. He will also outline specific case studies of brownfield development where environmental forensics has already been or could have been applied.

“Environmental forensics aims to offer an authoritative, effective and efficient way of proving or disproving liability for pollution,” says Professor Kalin. “It could reduce the scope for argument, minimise legal hold-ups, cut the length of court cases and so speed up brownfield development in future.”

Natasha Richardson | alfa
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