Fears raised over soil compliance

Expert warns rogue companies are faking certificates.

Soil: certification used in landscape industry to prove that batches are fit for purpose and free of contaminants - image: Tim O’Hare Associates
Soil: certification used in landscape industry to prove that batches are fit for purpose and free of contaminants - image: Tim O’Hare Associates

Rogue companies are faking soil compliance certification and passing off skip waste as high-quality topsoil, according to soil expert Tim O'Hare. His company, Tim O'Hare Associates, carries out independent testing for soils used in the landscape industry, with clients receiving a certificate and interpretive report.

These reports circulate widely in the landscape industry supply chain as proof that a batch of soil is fit for purpose and free of contaminants. But O'Hare has found unscrupulous suppliers are fiddling the numbers on their reports, rewriting comments or adjusting pH or fertility levels to make the soil appear of higher quality. Others delete the original supplier's details and identifying details such as the area the soil came from to stop clients buying directly from that supplier.

Doctored reports can mean landscape contractors end up using soils that are unsuitable for the use they have in mind - a soil may be certified as compliant for a commercial business development where the permissible levels of lead are relatively high, but the soil ends up being used for a children's playground. "Clearly that soil isn't suitable for that job but people have misused the information and ignored the warning we've put on it. So there are some serious implications," said O'Hare.

Advanced PDF software means it is increasingly hard to tell whether a report has been doctored, while the high level of movement of soil in the industry makes it hard to track down the culprits. "Everybody's losing out here. I am not particularly bothered by the loss of revenue but there are other serious implications such as that some of these soils have contaminants in them," he added.

O'Hare said by far the worst offenders are "waste companies that sell a bit of skip waste soil. Some of those companies are the rogues of the industry and they'll get hold of any old paperwork and if it's any good they'll just keep reusing it and Tipp-Ex out the date. They're basically fabricating a completely false report to help sell their soil."

Validation testing is being done more frequently so these soils are being picked up, but it is still hugely expensive to remedy. However, landscapers may not be aware that they are buying skip waste because it may come with a fraudulent topsoil analysis report.

Skip waste soil - the fine waste leftover from construction sites after the larger pieces have been sieved out - can contain metal, glass, concrete, lead, hydrocarbons and even asbestos fibres. Seven in 10 skip waste soils O'Hare tests contain the carcinogen Benzo(a)pyrene, and he estimates that around one-quarter could contain asbestos.

Skip waste soil is cheap but O'Hare would almost never recommend using it because "the repercussions can be very bad from an environmental, legal and contractual perspective. If all your plants die, you've got to replace them and the soil. That's a huge cost."

Checklist - How to avoid taking batches of contaminated soil

- Ask for the full report, not just a certificate of analysis.

- Reports from most soil analysis labs will include the date, client name and a unique reference number. Check that these match on each page - if the date or client are missing, the report has probably been tampered with.

- Tim O'Hare Associates watermark the client's name across every page.

- Brownfield sites with Clean Cover Strategies for remediation have very specific soil requirements. Contractors must ensure that developers supply all the necessary information about the site's remediation strategy and that the soil they are supplying meets the required standard.

- If a topsoil analysis looks suspicious, call the testing company - they should be happy to confirm whether it is genuine.

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