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The responsibilities of the seller and the risks of the buyer with regards to a polluted site

Over the last twenty five (25) years I have cleaned up and decontaminated hundreds of sites that have been polluted with hazardous materials. All of these sites have had legal issues in terms of who is liable and who must pay for the clean-up and rehabilitation of the site. A prime example on public record is…During November 2000 it became apparent to Sun International and SIP Project Managers (Pty) Ltd that the old Humewood Service Station in Port Elizabeth had possibly contaminated the site that the Board Walk Casino was being built on. The clean-up cost was in excess of R2 million rand and it took over seventy days to complete. Significant Safety Health and Environmental (SHE) compliance procedures were required as the site frequently caught alight via flash explosions during excavation and burnt in areas for up to eleven (11) minutes. A detailed Safety file was required with Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s) including Permit to Work (PTW). Volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) were present and the correct personal protection equipment (PPE) needed to be maintained and worn during working shifts. Detailed compliance records were required to be maintained including medical logs with blood profiles.  The petroleum supplier, land owner, Humewood Service Station, Sun International and SIP Project Managers (Pty) Ltd were embroiled in a legal case for an extended period of time. The Humewood Boardwalk Casino site was cleaned up and rehabilitated via a process known as bioremedation. (See Projects Tab bioremediation project


The legal position of the seller as at 2015

The seller, while he or she is the owner of the land, has an obligation to comply with section 28 of NEMA in respect of pollution or degradation of the land and section 19 of the National Water Act in respect of pollution of a water resource on the land.  If he or she is aware of any significant contamination of the land for the purposes of the Waste Act, he or she must advise the authorities.  Once the land has been declared as an investigation area, the minister’s consent is required to sell the land.  If a remediation order has been issued, and the owner is the person directed to undertake the remediation then the seller must do so within the time period specified.  However, the minister may amend a remediation order if the buyer and the seller agree that the buyer will assume responsibility for the remediation.  Unless the seller can get the buyer to agree to undertake the remediation, it is unlikely that the transfer can be affected.

Secondly, amendments to the National Building Regulations (“NBR”) which are made under the National Building Regulations and Standards Act, 103 of 1997 came into effect on 1 October 2008.  The amendments to the NBR also require investigation of potentially contaminated land and restrictions on the erection of any buildings on contaminated land.


The National Building Regulations

In terms of the Regulations, “contaminated land” means any land that “due to substances contained within or under it, is in a condition that presents an unacceptable risk to the health and safety of occupant of buildings constructed on such land”.  The Regulations provide that where the local authority has reason to believe that a site on which it is intended to erect a building is situated on contaminated land, it must notify any person who applies for building plan approval in respect of that land.  At that point, the applicant must appoint an expert to undertake an appropriate geotechnical site investigation.  Then, on the basis of the site investigation, the local authority can decide whether or not to approve the erection of buildings on the site.


Legal obligations of the buyer as at 2015

A buyer of contaminated land must be aware that, when he or she acquires the land, he or she also acquires the duty of an owner in terms of section 28 of NEMA and the duties of an owner in terms of section 19 of the National Water Act.

The buyer, if he or she intends to erect a building on the land, must be aware that he or she may not get approval of his or her building plans if the local authority has reason to believe that building on the land will put the occupants of such a building at risk.

Transferring a building does not transfer the obligations of the owner lock stock and barrel to the buyer.  For example, if the owner was the person who caused the pollution or contributed to it, he or she may remain liable for the costs of taking measures to contain the contamination.

Conversely, if the seller did not cause the contamination, but the contamination was caused by a previous owner in the distant past, the buyer may have no recourse against the seller.


NB Refer to Legal Insert Part 8 Contaminated Land at end of this document.


A solution to the remediation of the polluted sites might be Bioremedation

What is bioremediation? Bio means Natural and Remediate means to restore–heal-make better. Of interest is this quote, author unknown from Practical Environmental Bioremediation – The Field Guide

“To the modern student of Ecology and Environment, it is instructive that all artificial pollution events, both regional and global, find their origin in MAN and his activities and, at the same time, the major modes of natural cleansing are accomplished by MICROBES through their activities; on the one hand, God’s highest achievement  in creation is found doing the most destruction, while the lowliest form of life crafted by his hand does the janitor’s duty – the former by disobedience and the later by design”

As per the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the USA there are many methods to clean up pollution at Superfund and other sites. Some, like bioremediation, are considered new or innovative. Such methods can be quicker and cheaper than more common methods.

The concept of bioremediation is “A treatability technology that uses biological activity to reduce the concentration or toxicity of a pollutant.”  Bioremediation commonly uses processes by which micro-organisms transform or degrade chemicals in the environment¹. The EPA states the following “Bioremediation allows natural processes to clean up harmful chemicals in the environment. Microscopic bugs or microbes that live in soil and groundwater like to eat certain harmful chemicals, such as those found in gasoline and oil spills commonly known as hydrocarbons. When microbes completely digest these chemicals, they change them into water and harmless gases such as carbon dioxide.”

Bioremedation has been around for a long time. There is a saying “In nature not much goes to waste” The Romans in 600 B.C. started bioremediation with waste water and an intricate system of  sewers.² There are various methodologies whereby bioremedation can take place, they are:

Bio-stimulation: If the results of the site survey indicate there is sufficient native, pollutant specific bacterial species at the spill site, and nutrients available, then Bio-stimulation is an option.

Natural Attenuation: Requires a capable microbial community, nutrients are available, perfect environmental conditions exist and the contaminates will degrade naturally over time.

Bio-Augmentation: Since bioremediation is going to happen naturally. Why don’t we help it along? Bioremediation is not rocket science; it is nature at work with a little help from its friends! We aid Bio-Augmentation using special, selectively adapted micro-organisms to increase the efficacy of microbial degradation of organic wastes. We also utilise Sorbents- Surfactants- Aeration- Nutrients & Indigenous-Endemic bacteria (Petrophilic) or other endemic Microbes such as powerful fungal & bacterial combinations. A Microbe can be a bacteria or fungi or a combination of both.

To optimise the formulation and the effect of these Microbes we need to ensure the following. There are 42 Groups of natural bacteria. We create a perfect environment for all by providing a ratio of 110 carbon to 5 Nitrogen and 1 Phosphorous. We need to provide the ideal habitat for nature to take its course. We create a “bio-mass – bio-film” in the soil which is like a factory and the following elements must be present:

Microbes / Bacteria / Fungi / Enzymes
Oxygen / Air
Heat / Sun
Nutrients as a ratio of 110 carbon to 5 Nitrogen and 1 Phosphorous

On some sites a sorbent may be required. The sorbent can act as an absorbent in a host capacity? The host creates the biomass and encapsulates the pollutant and prevents leaching thereby assisting the microbe and reducing liability.

It is important to consider that bioremediation does not work at every site, and is not necessarily the least expensive method at every site. Bioremediation may not meet the remediation timetable at every site and may not achieve the necessary clean-up standards at every site.

However bioremediation on the correct site achieves the following:

  • Bioremediation can be economically viable.  Bioremediation normally ensures insitu soil excavation, no or limited transportation, no disposal, no clean soil replacement.
  • Undisturbed environment (with in-situ application)
  • Universal (can often treat water, soil, sludge’s, air)
  • Contaminants are destroyed or detoxified.
  • LIABILITY is eliminated.

The objective on any hazardous spill is to contain the spill and pollution to a specific site and area if possible. Bioremediation is to be implemented as soon as possible to start reducing the pollutants and site contamination. See insert below.

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By |2021-02-08T08:43:33+00:00September 14th, 2015|Blog|0 Comments

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