UN Enviroment Programme

Chapter 11. Status of soil pollution in North America


Soil pollution in North American is widespread in extent and varied in type. Both the United States of America and Canada have long histories of resource extraction and industrial activity that have left behind a costly legacy of soil pollution. Current law does provide substantial protection from ongoing operations that threaten soil contamination. However, the clean-up of legacy sites is often a slow due to lengthy legal processes to determine liability and lack of investment of public resources. New classes of contaminants (e.g., PFAS compounds) continue to be discovered that fall outside of the scope of current guidance and regulatory processes can be slow to catch up with potential health threats.

As is seen elsewhere in the world, the water and air compartments have received more legislative and government agency focus than soil. The threat to future health from degraded soil is often not fully appreciated and soil pollution regulation is split between agencies. For example, despite many environmental laws being enacted, neither the United States of America nor Canada have one solely focused on soil protection. Despite this fractured approach, environmental law in both countries does provide clear guidance on soil pollution thresholds.

In Canada and the United States of America, a large amount of soil pollution data is produced, and much is publicly available. However, this information is highly fragmented with neither country have a single nation-wide repository of contaminated soil data. Federal agencies do produce reports providing overviews of human activities that can lead to soil pollution, but more detailed site information typically resides at the province/territory (Canada) or state (United States of America) level. Often this more detailed information is difficult to access except by those who have in-depth knowledge of government information systems.

Common to both countries is the continued need for environmental justice. Frequently communities with the fewest resources are the most exposed to historic and current soil contamination. These communities often do not have the economic or political capital to effect remediation of contaminated soil that impact their health despite having equal claim to remediation resources.

Both countries have significant capacity to address soil pollution. A highly developed environmental remediation industry has the ability to conduct site clean ups for almost any compound and at any scale. A robust academic and non-profit environmental research community frequently produces new analytical techniques and cutting-edge environmental impact research. The single largest limiting factor to increasing the number of sites remediated is availability of public and private resources.