Soil Pollution – Interview with EU4Green experts

Nov 08, 2023

Copyright: Umweltbundesamt

In an interview with EU4Green Soil Pollution experts Mr. Sigbert Huber and Mrs. Martha Wepner-Banko, we dive deeper in the issues of soil pollution, its concerns for Western Balkans economies and how this problem is perceived and addressed in EU countries. 

Depollution Soil is one of EU4Green and priority areas of the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans. Why is it important for the European Union and what’s its importance for the Western Balkan region?

According to the guidelines for the Implementation of the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans combating land degradation and restoring degraded land should include amongst others sustainable food production, ecosystem conservation and land restoration all requiring reduced soil pollution.

Due to over 100 years of industrialization and mining activities, soil contamination is a widespread problem in the Western Balkans, having generated numerous contaminated hot-spots as well as landfill sites. The main contaminants associated with these industrial activities are mineral oils, trace elements (such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, nickel, or zinc) and organic contaminants.

On the other hand, diffuse soil contamination is one of the specific threats to soils in Western Balkans. Trace elements from fertilizers (e.g. cadmium from mineral fertilizers) and some fungicides (mainly copper) and pesticide residues are contaminants of major concern in agricultural soils in the region as well as further pollutants of emerging concern coming into focus.

How does that translate to project activities, outputs and results?

In relation to the inventory of contaminated soils the identification of key soil polluting activities in each economy should start with the collection of information and data if it is not already done. The main focus should be on mega sites with the most significant risks and the focus on evident and severe problems leading to a contaminated sites inventory also including brownfields. Prioritization of these sites can lead to lighthouse projects in each economy for the most urgent site(s) to learn more about the mechanism of investigation, risk assessment, initiating remediation, financing and redevelopment.

Regarding soil monitoring the adoption of standard methodologies for harmonized monitoring (field and laboratory) and for data formatting and storage is necessary and should lead to the establishment of a soil monitoring system throughout the region to monitor soil quality following the same procedure that is used in the EU Member States (see LUCAS Soil: ). This would strengthen the capacities for monitoring soil quality in the WB6 economies as recommended in the Joint Research Center (JRC) report Status of environment and climate in the Western Balkans (2022) and contribute to the implementation of the EU Soil Strategy 2030.

Within EU4Green the establishment of guidance documents for soil monitoring and identification and registration of contaminated sites will be elaborated based on workshops on these topics to be organized with partners such as JRC (Joint Research Centre) and EEA (European Environment Agency). Target groups include especially the ministries and agencies dealing with soil pollution supported by laboratories and university institutes.

EAA has significant knowledge and know-how in the field and your organization plays an important role in the project. How does your experience and institutional knowledge contribute to the realization of EU4Green project?

The Environment Agency Austria has been dealing with contaminated sites as executing body of the Austrian Act on the Remediation of Contaminated Sites since its getting into force in 1989. Furthermore, through involvement in several international and EU wide networks and projects knowledge has been gained in context with different management systems and challenges. The agency is coordinating national projects on soil monitoring on organic pollutants and plastics as well as maintaining a national soil information system providing data from various soil inventories in the last decades. Furthermore, it has a lot of experience in analyzing pollutants in different environmental matrices (e.g. air, soil, sewage sludge, waste, water) and developing analytical methods for emerging pollutants.

What do you see as the biggest potential in the six WB economies, if looking at the implementation of EU4Green and the GAWB?

In relation to Depollution soil there is a big potential for improvement regarding the identification of contaminated sites, further development of registers for those sites and providing guidance for the prioritization of remediation of contaminated sites. Furthermore, the preparation of the participation of the Western Balkans 6 (WB6) economies in the next collection of soil samples in the frame of LUCAS Soil is a big step towards the identification of diffuse soil contamination in WB6 in a harmonized way as basis for future soil protection from pollution and degradation.

What are your concerns regarding the contaminated soil and which methods are suitable for the identification of contaminated sites and key polluting activities?

Addressing soil contamination in the WB6 is hampered by inadequate legal frameworks, insufficient funding and staffing, and a lack of thorough site investigations. To identify contaminated sites and principal polluters, it is essential to start with accessible, high-quality information, with primary criteria focusing on the absence of significant risks to human health and the environment. Pre-established hot spot identification criteria must align with overarching strategies and goals, singling out sites that present very high or high risks, while other less risky sites might influence land value during land use changes. Building a registry of contaminated sites requires clarity on which types of sites to include, with agreed identification criteria that are consistent with strategic targets. The process should begin with the most concerning sites, progressively including every site that handles substances posing health and environmental risks, and deciding which entities are responsible for data collection and registry management.