Soil protection

Soil in a child's handClick to enlarge
Each and every handful of soil is worthy of protection
Source: S. Marahrens / Umweltbundesamt


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In Germany, soil protection is carried out at many levels. The federal government lays down the necessary legal frameworks, which are implemented by the regional states. The UBA compiles, assesses, and provides information on soil status, develops and assesses soil conservation and optimization measures. In carrying out these activities, collaboration with partners beyond our borders is important.

How can soil functions be protected?

Soil protection mainly involves protecting the following soil functions: natural soil functions that act as habitats; filtering and buffering; natural substance breakdown and decomposition. These functions are closely related to soil use and usage functions, particularly soil use for farming.

To this end, substance inputs (e.g. from air pollution and construction debris) and non-material inputs (e.g. from erosion and compaction) should be reduced to the absolute minimum, and existing loads should be eliminated. One of the salient features of soil protection is that natural soil functions and soil usage functions are not necessarily compatible with each other. Our soils have endured centuries of human activity that has brought about changes in soil nutrient content, root penetration and the water balance, among other things. The basic contaminant load on soils (background content) is to some extent also substantially affected by soil use. And finally, the suitability of soil for a particular use is determined by soil type. In other words, soil protection always entails weighing various usage and protection interests.

Soil protection involves overlapping activities

Soil protection is an environmental policy task involving overlapping activities, in that as a pollutant sink, soil is an environmental policy yardstick. The success of measures in domains such as air quality, sewage treatment and waste policy can have an impact on the soil. Residual air pollution ends up in the soil; sewage sludge quality has an impact on soil quality; recyclable waste that is deposited in or on the ground also affects on soil quality.

Historical background

The federal government’s soil protection strategy, which was enacted in 1985, represented the first unified approach to soil protection that had been elaborated in Germany. However, it later emerged that it was still not possible to provide soil with the same level of protection as that accorded to air and water. Most important of all, the problem of dealing with site contamination and deleterious soil changes led to enactment, in 1998, of the Federal Soil Conservation Act (BBodSchG).

This law governs contaminated-site cleanup in a manner consistent with actual practice. In the interest of avoiding future soil contamination, the law lays down precautionary principles and requirements concerning the use of materials in and on soils. Section 1 of the Act contains the “programmatic” stipulation that any factor that exerts an impact on the soil and any deleterious impact of such factors on natural soil functions (in the soil’s capacity as a repository of natural and social history) is to be avoided insofar as possible.

This stipulation aims to avert hazards entailed by existing contamination and promote precautionary measures that will avoid future contamination. Both of these aims are implemented via the Bodenschutz- und Altlastenverordnung (soil protection and contaminated-site regulation) which lays down (a) precautionary soil values for particularly important contaminants; (b) hazard prevention test and measurement values for scenarios involving site contamination and deleterious soil changes; and (c) soil investigation and assessment procedures. This regulation is currently in the process of being amended, the goal being to improve intermeshing with other legislation so as to enshrine soil conservation more robustly in other legal frameworks.

Soil protection necessitates cooperation among many stakeholders

Soil protection is an activity that many different parties have a hand in, such as (to name but a few) site cleanup engineers, growers and forestry managers ‒ and of course spatial planners, who also institute measures aimed at soil stewardship. Authorizing bodies contribute to soil protection when granting approvals for installations that engender emissions. Individuals who practice organic gardening also have a hand in soil protection. And while all such stakeholders contribute to soil protection, they are not always on the same page. This situation can be improved by strengthening soil conservation awareness on the part of such stakeholders, as well as the general public. Such efforts should begin during early childhood education, via instruments such as multi-disciplinary teaching modules and science education concerning specific environmental departments and aspects of nature. Teaching materials for these purposes are available.

When it comes to soil protection at the technical level, collaboration between municipalities, regional states, associations and European organizations plays a crucial role. Soil data is being collected and assessed via various projects and research studies, and new contaminants that come to light that are harmful to the soil and human health are being investigated. The findings of such investigations are reflected in the values espoused by federal soil protection and contaminated-site regulation and other laws. Project outcomes lead to recommendations and guidelines concerning ways to deal with conflicts of interest between soil protection and use. By virtue of its complexity and numerous aspects, soil protection remains a challenging and indispensable field of study and endeavor.