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Monday, 2 July, 2001, 13:51 GMT 14:51 UK
Environmental 'time bomb' for properties
Homeowners could face huge bills for cleaning-up contaminated land
Homeowners whose properties were built on contaminated land could face hefty bills

By BBC News Online's consumer affairs reporter Sarah Toyne

Homeowners could face bills for thousands of pounds if their property has been built on contaminated land.

It is seen as tomorrow's problem, but it is a time bomb for some homeowners

Steven Clarke, Countrywide Legal Indemnities
From July 2001, local authorities in England are testing land for harmful chemicals, under new environmental measures introduced last year.

If the original polluter can not be found, homeowners could be liable for the cost of cleaning-up the land or fines worth up to 20,000.

The new approach could jeopardise government plans to switch housing development to "brownfield" sites - many of which will have previously had an industrial or commercial usage.

Experts fear that people could be put off these developments because of potential environmental risks.

Environmental audit

Since last April, councils have been identifying sites which could pose an environmental risk, under rules contained in the Environmental Protection Act 1990.

They must now carry out scientific tests to determine whether these are emitting harmful chemicals, which could affect the health of local residents.

Audits from two rural councils have already identified 4,000 possible sites, which will now be tested for contamination.

Geoff Offen of Landmark, an environmental information company, has been working with local councils to identify suspected sites.

Properties could be at risk
Homeowners could face bills worth thousands of pounds

He said: "I think the majority of people will not be caught out, but a significant minority of people will be affected, because councils will find it difficult to chase the original perpetrator."

Under the new legislation, if local councils can not trace the original contaminator, the current owner or occupier of the land will be liable.

Hard times ahead

Only homeowners who can prove to their local council that they are unable to afford clean-up costs will be exempt.

For those people who can afford to pay, their home insurance policy is unlikely to cover the costs.

Although buildings insurance will normally cover environmental factors such as fire, explosions, lightning and earthquakes, most will not cover any clean-up costs from contaminated land.

As a consequence, a number of insurers, such as Countrywide Legal Indemnities, are now offering additional cover to protect against contaminated land.

"It is seen as tomorrow's problem, but it is a time bomb for some homeowners," said Steven Clarke of Countrywide Legal Indemnities.

Those people in the process of buying a new home are being advised to commission an environmental audit in addition to any other home surveys.

Offen said: "Buying a home is often the largest investment that people will ever make. If people are concerned that the property could have been built on contaminated land, they should instruct an environmental audit. "

It costs about 40 for a comprehensive environmental survey.

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