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CL:AIRE is pleased to announce that the research project “Legacy wastes in the coastal zone: environmental risks and management futures” has been approved by the CL:AIRE Technology and Research Group as CL:AIRE Research Project RP27.

This NERC-funded project brings together complementary expertise in waste management, freshwater and seawater geochemistry, geomorphology, hydrology, ecology and environmental policy to provide a multi-scale assessment of the risks posed by municipal and mineral-rich legacy wastes in the coastal zone and provide a framework for their effective future management.

The research aims to take a coordinated approach to comprehensively investigate the spatial extent, characteristics, and physical and biogeochemical behaviour of municipal and industrial legacy wastes, in order to then objectively evaluate both (a) the environmental risks and impacts of solid wastes in coastal zones, both now and in future climate change scenarios and (b) the most appropriate management policies and interventions to address these risks.

The research will be carried out by the universities of Newcastle, Exeter, Hull, Glasgow, Plymouth, Liverpool John Moores, Leeds and the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.

Historical disposal of wastes from domestic and industrial sources often took place with little regard for potential environmental impacts. Wastes were often deposited in landfills that can release potential pollutants to the surrounding environment. Such 'legacy landfill' sites are a particular concern in coastal areas where they are likely to be affected by increased flooding, greater erosion and more extreme cycles of wetting and drying as our climate changes. Managing such environmental issues is of critical importance, but currently we do not have a systematic framework by which we assess and understand the nature of the risks posed by different waste types in coastal areas. Given the UK's rich industrial past, there are a wide range of legacy wastes deposited in estuarine and coastal settings such as municipal waste, mine wastes, steel industry by-products, metal-rich wastes from smelting and chemical process wastes. This proposal brings together a team of researchers specialising in assessing the environmental risks of legacy wastes to (1) provide a national assessment of the environmental risks associated with legacy landfills in the coastal zone, and (2) provide a framework for effective management of these risks now and in the future.

The first part of the project will bring together various national databases (e.g. on location of landfills, mining waste, coastal erosion rates, coastal management plans) to provide a single map-based database of legacy landfills within the coastal zone. We will then liaise with regional specialists in government agencies and academia to collate detail on documented risks and identify high risk priority sites (e.g. those with the greatest contamination risk and / or those most affected by erosion or flooding). This will allow us to produce an overview of the different types of waste in coastal landfills, assess the broad risks posed by them (e.g. pollutant release, physical erosion etc.) and consider potential options for resource recovery from these sites (e.g. scrap metals that could be recycled).

The second component of the project will improve our understanding of the environmental behaviour of different waste types in coastal settings. Most risk assessments for wastes are undertaken assuming they will be in contact with freshwater (e.g. leaching tests that simulate wastes in contact with rainfall). We will provide a significant advance on assessing environmental risks in coastal settings by testing how pollutants are released from different waste types (e.g. municipal waste, mine waste, processing wastes) under a range of environmental conditions. These conditions will simulate the current and future environmental scenarios in coastal areas such as variations in salinity and extremes of wetting and drying that are anticipated with climate change. Crucially, we will undertake experiments that test how these wastes behave across a range of experimental scales (e.g. from beaker sized experiments, through skip-sized experiments, to measurements at real sites). This is important to have confidence that small scale laboratory experiments give us information on how pollutants are released from waste that matches with data from real field sites. Such information is crucial for extending the risk assessments completed in part one of the project.

Effective long term management of legacy wastes relies on many different agencies working together (e.g. councils, regulators, land owners, engineers). The final part of the project will therefore bring various stakeholders together in different parts of the UK to (1) evaluate approaches to remediation, and (2) consider management priorities put forward by the early stages of the project. A series of workshops will take place in the different administrations of the UK to produce a national management framework for legacy wastes in the coastal zone.