Mike Higgins, managing director – Land Remediation, Hydrock

The 5-step practical approach to managing asbestos in soil

Hydrock’s Mike Higgins sets out the fundamentals of how to safely and effectively manage the presence of asbestos on increasingly valuable brown field sites.

As a shakeup of UK planning rules is announced, the Government has revealed plans – yet to be agreed by Ministers - that would see planning permission granted automatically to all ‘suitable’ brownfield sites, primarily to address the need to meet housing targets.

One increasingly encountered risk in reusing brownfield sites is the legacy left behind from previous occupants, leading to the presence of asbestos. This happens due to historical sub-standard asbestos removal prior to demolition, illegally buried waste, and numerous historical practices contributing to high levels of asbestos. Industry profiles published by The Department of the Environment1 list asbestos as being a potential key contaminant on 85% of brownfield land, illustrating that its presence in soil is now a major issue affecting the redevelopment of sites, slowing construction and increasing overall risk. 

"Practical, non-technical guides such as Hydrock’s five steps give an understanding of best practice processes and procedures for those who find themselves dealing with a potentially contaminated site."

Industry guidance on dealing with asbestos in contaminated land is fairly sparse, although it has started to gain pace. The Construction Industry Research and Information Association (CIRIA) has published technical guidance documents aimed at understanding and managing the risks of asbestos in soil, and has organised a conference on the issue in October. Their 2014 publication, ‘Asbestos in soil and made ground: a guide to understanding and managing risk’ is the first good practice guide in the UK to amalgamate current industry knowledge on the subject since 1990 and identify gaps in the knowledge base.

However the practical approach to dealing with an asbestos contaminated site remains virtually undiscussed. Land remediation specialist Hydrock has published a 5-step process for approaching asbestos in soil, from identifying the likelihood of contamination on site, to generating an auditable reporting trail that will ensure that asbestos in soil is not an obstacle to achieving planning permission and minimises the impact on construction. 

Step 1

Assuming prior engagement with the contractor, the first step – defining the problem – involves assessing existing data and engaging an experienced asbestos soil surveyor as early as possible. This critical stage determines the level of further investigation required and, crucially, allows the client to understand any remedial cost implications early in the development process. This includes time-based costs from delays in construction if greater remedial works are required; if affected stakeholders have been identified; or if licences are required to deal with any contaminants. 

Step 2

The second step of the process, forward planning, focuses on the development of a solution strategy that satisfies all interested parties, minimising disruption to the original development timescales. The remedial approach is based upon the findings from Step 1, taking into account the characteristics of the asbestos materials, their distribution and the soil type; the proposed land use; cost/benefit analyses; the impact on potential stakeholders; and the attitude of local regulators. 

Step 3

The combined outcome of the first two steps facilitates Step 3: establishing a plan of work.  Based on a thorough understanding of the site and its surroundings, specific methodologies can be formulated. At this point the key factors considered in planning and executing the work include the licensing regime; coordination with other contractors on site; site layout and access arrangements; plant and personnel decontamination; control measures and air monitoring strategy; and risk-based management of waste disposal. 

Step 4

Engaging trained professionals to competently deal with the health and safety risks associated with asbestos contamination is paramount. Understanding the training policies, standards and accreditations your chosen remediation contractor possesses is referred to as Step 4, Competency, and can play a big part in planning sign off at the end of decontamination works.

Step 5

The culmination of Steps 1-4 are ultimately designed to get you to the point of validation, Step 5. After acquiring successful planning sign off, you should ensure you have access to all validation records and, where material has been retained onsite, an asbestos management plan. Reports will include a detailed audit trail of material movements, including disposal/reuse records and as-built drawings. Training should also be given to all follow-on site workers to ensure they have the knowledge to protect themselves and others.

Practical, non-technical guides such as Hydrock’s five steps give an understanding of best practice processes and procedures for those who find themselves dealing with a potentially contaminated site. The benefit of such a guide minimises construction interruptions and crucially offers greater assurance that planning permission will be granted without unnecessary delays. 

As industry awareness increases, helped by the work of research and information bodies such as CIRIA and guides like that produced by Hydrock, dealing with asbestos contaminated sites will be better understood, and consequently managed. This will help get the industry back on track with developing brownfield sites, regenerating abandoned land and meeting the UK’s housing targets.


Mike Higgins is managing director – Land Remediation at Hydrock