Innovative and cost-effective approaches for brownfield site regeneration have been validated by a LIFE project in northern England which demonstrated the natural powers of trees and grass species for decontaminating former industrialised areas.
Brownfield sites refer to land that has been used for commercial purposes but is now generally derelict. Such sites are common throughout the EU 27 and remain a legacy of our countries’ industrial history. EU development policy encourages the reuse of these sites for socio-economic, civic and environmental purposes and the European Environment Agency’s State and Outlook 2010 land use assessment notes that “Brown-field sites are an example of land use potential that is not efficiently exploited.”
Despite the opportunities offered by Europe’s brownfield sites, many still remain contaminated and this obstructs their redevelopment potential. Cleaning them up can be extremely expensive and the associated risks often deters private developers. Similarly, cash-strapped municipalities also find it hard to justify the costs of brownfield rehabilitation. New, cheaper technologies and more cost-efficient methods are hence required to help manage such revitalisation, and LIFE projects have been at the forefront of this specialist (brown) field.
An interesting example of LIFE’s work with brownfield regeneration is the BioReGen project that was carried out in the UK’s Teesside region.
Teesside typifies industrialised parts of Europe. It contains large swathes of brownfield areas that blight the region and pose pollution problems. Scientists from the University of Teesside’s Clean Environment Management Centre (CLEMANCE) were aware of the concerns caused by brownfield sites and so they set up the BioReGen project to investigate natural methods for transforming these derelict sites in environmentally-friendly ways at relatively low cost.
Receiving an EU grant of €610 000, the LIFE Environment project started in December 2005 and continued up until the end of April 2010. By the end of the project, the CLEMANCE team had made some highly useful discoveries about how willow trees and grass plants could clean up contaminated sites. This process, known as phytoremediation, harnessed the flora’s natural ability to absorb contaminants such as, zinc, copper, cadmium and other heavy metals.
A number of full-scale demonstration sites were planted up on different types of derelict land. These included an old shipyard, a former coal yard, a disused landfill site and gravel pit, as well a decommissioned sewage treatment plant and part of an oil refinery. Dr Richard Lord from BioReGen explains: ‘When we started this project, we did not know if we could grow plants on such contaminated land but it has been a success everywhere we have tried it. We have proved that phytoremediation works and what works on a small site can also do so on much larger sites as well.” He continues “It is also much cheaper than having to clean up a site or removing contaminated soils to landfill sites. The potential of our project is huge.”
However, he points out that the technique is not rapid because it depends on natural processes to do their work at their own pace. Dr Lord said: ‘This is not a quick fix. To get a site ready for development through this method could take years but we are on the right track. We regard it as a holding operation until the sites are needed for industry again. In the meantime, we are making them attractive, and good wildlife habitats, rather than visions of unsightly dereliction”.
See the project’s Layman’s Report for further details about the phytoremediation possibilities that have been demonstrated by LIFE’s BioReGen actions.