The problem of brownfield land is universal. Countries throughout the world have problems with contaminants present in soil that prevent people from using the land. Large demand exists to improve soil health and to regenerate brownfield land for present and future generations. While brownfield land can clearly affect the physical health of people, plants and animals it may also affect people’s mental health or sense of well-being.
Land previously developed for industry or other uses may affect public health in a variety of different ways that does not appear well understood at this time. IHRR’s research project ROBUST (Regenerating Brownfield Land Using Sustainable Technologies) at Durham University is investigating how to restore brownfield land sustainably, but is also researching how brownfield land affects the well-being of communities that live around it. Recently, the project has begun its first public field trial testing a new technology for improving soil health that uses recycled minerals to improve the natural defences of the soil against contamination.
The site of the trial is located at an old coachworks in Easington Colliery, County Durham in North East England. It was used as a lorry garage and a coach park which has left some man-made pollution in the soil. Like other brownfield sites, this land cannot be used for building or other purposes because of the presence of contaminants such as diesel fuel and heavy metals. This will be the first time ROBUST technology will be tested to see whether it can be used to regenerate contaminated land and help put it back into use.
The main components of the ROBUST technology are recycled minerals from the water treatment industry that are taken from residues from upstream filtration processes for producing clean drinking water. It is important to keep in mind that they are not taken from residues from treating sewage sludge. The minerals used from water treatment are in fact already present in the soil such as manganese oxide which is particularly good at breaking down petrol and other contaminants and for immobilising toxic heavy metals such as arsenic. The intention of ROBUST is to restore the natural defence mechanism of the soil so that it may improve over time. According to the project’s website, the recycled minerals do one of two things to contaminants in the soil:
‘They adsorb them, which makes them stick to the surface of the material and prevents them from moving through the soil or the minerals oxidise contaminants, breaking down pollutants into harmless by-products. Immobilising toxic metals such as lead prevents them from entering into the groundwater. Iron oxide is particularly good at adsorbing arsenic and biogenic manganese oxides have been found to absorb toxic metals completely’.
Note that ‘adsorption’ is different from ‘absorption’ in that when something is adsorbed it gathers on the surface of something else as opposed to soaking it up, taking it through the material entirely. Other than testing the technology another important emphasis of ROBUST is working with local communities who can potentially benefit from restoring brownfield land in places where they live.
The site will be monitored over time to see how well it improves the health of the soil. Researchers from the project will also be looking at people’s own perspective on brownfield and soil health and will examine ways to involve them in regenerating the land over time. While mostly unheard of in science and engineering, ROBUST is applying a holistic approach that accounts for the physical and social aspects of restoring soil health, redeveloping brownfield land and promoting community well-being.
For more about the project visit its website: http://www.robustdurham.org.uk and listen to podcasts from researchers part of the ROBUST project that introduce its goals and the technologies they are currently developing to help improve soil health:
Brownfield Land and Redevelopment