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National protocols for assessing site contamination

Date: 22 August 2013
Category: Case Studies
  • Work by CRC CARE is behind a major overhaul of national standards for assessing and managing contaminated sites
  • The new National Environment Protection Measure is now complete and available to industry and regulators

Ensuring national harmonisation

Australia’s National Environment Protection Council (NEPC) has legal responsibility for setting national standards in seven areas of environmental protection, including air quality, used packaging and contaminated sites. The NEPC’s ‘measures’ – developed for all of its areas of responsibility and known as National Environment Protection Measures, or ‘NEPMs’ – facilitate consistency across jurisdictions and ensure that the best quality information is available for regulators and managers.

 Although its first recommendations on contaminated sites appeared in 1999, rapid advances in the science of site assessment and treatment, and in knowledge of potential health impacts, led to a decision in 2005 to revise them.

Following extensive input from CRC CARE, CSIRO, the National Health and Medical Research Council and other scientific and industry partners, and with subsequent reviews and administrative steps completed, the new National Environment Protection (Assessment of Site Contamination) Measure was officially adopted in May 2013.

Informing a stronger NEPM

In revising this NEPM, CRC CARE provided information and advice in the following areas:

  • petroleum hydrocarbon fractions and related analytical methods
  • characterisation of sites contaminated with petroleum hydrocarbons
  • field assessment and biodegradation of petroleum hydrocarbon vapours
  • health screening levels for total petroleum hydrocarbons
  • contaminant bioavailability and bioaccessibility
  • community consultation.

Particular advances developed by CRC CARE included new recommendations on how different levels of hydrocarbon contamination in soil should trigger different management responses in order to protect human health. Known as ‘health screening levels’ (or HSLs), they represent the most advanced consensus available on the health risk of soils contaminated by hydrocarbons. They also differentiate between different depths for soil, soil vapour and groundwater, and between sand, clay and silt.

International influence

Collaboration between Australian and Canadian authorities during the revision also resulted in the Canadians recommending that Australian levels of protection, as well as the Australian ‘species sensitivity distribution' (SSD) method be adopted for their own use. SSDs are models of the variation in sensitivity of species to a particular stressor (e.g. some sort of contaminant).

In April 2013 the governing body of NEPC, the Australian Standing Council on Environment and Water, endorsed the revised NEPM as ‘the premier document for the assessment of site contamination in Australia, used by regulators, site assessors, consultants, environmental auditors, landowners, developers and industry’.

Much of CRC CARE’s work towards the new NEPM is available via its Technical Report series, which may be downloaded as PDF files.

Also see the feature on CRC CARE's policy work published by AusIndustry, the division of the Australian Department of Industry that administers the CRC Program.