Standards for investigating sites

Standards are legally enforceable limits of substances, parameters or narrative statements specified in legislation, regulations, permits and approvals.

Not all standards applicable to contaminated sites are concentrations of substances.

Standards exist for pH, odour and other narrative statements or parameters. The evaluation of any listed standard in the Contaminated Sites Regulation (CSR) must be completed using the BC Environmental Laboratory Manual.

Generic and matrix numerical standards remain legally in force in the CSR Schedules 3.1 to 3.4 until the date they're replaced or amended.

For an introduction to standards, please select one of the topic areas.

The Environmental Management Act (EMA) and CSR provide the authority to develop, establish or use soil, sediment, water, or vapour standards for a substance found at a contaminated site.

Generic numerical standards for soil, water, vapour and sediment are prescribed in the CSR Schedules 3.1 to 3.4.

Risk-based standards are defined in the CSR and protocols.

Numerical standards are used at contaminated sites in B.C. to determine:

  • If a site is contaminated
  • If contamination has been delineated
  • When a site has been sufficiently cleaned up

Risk-based standards are used at contaminated sites in B.C. to determine:

  • When a site has been sufficiently cleaned up
  • If risks are acceptable at a site

The environmental quality standards listed in the CSR are based on and are designed to be protective of the toxicological effects of anthropogenic substances released by Schedule 2 activities.  

In the numerical standards approach, environmental protection is carried out by using environmental quality standards. These define what maximum levels of many substances are allowed in soil, water, vapour and sediment at sites. 

The standards are protective of:

Human health

  • The potential effects of environmental contamination on humans range from minor physical symptoms to life-threatening diseases, such as cancer
  • Children are often most at risk from exposure to contaminated soil, air, water and food

Environmental health

  • Contamination can seriously affect the environment by releasing substances that kill fish, impair the reproduction of birds and contaminate the food web

Some stakeholders ask why it's necessary to protect the environment at contaminated sites.

The ministry must ensure the environment at a contaminated site is protected because of:

Human health reasons

  • A site poses a threat to the health of people who live, visit, or work at the site
  • Substances in the soil, water, sediment and vapour at the site may cause people to become ill

Environmental reasons

  • Even if a site does not pose a threat to people, it can still be an environmental hazard
  • Soil, water, sediment and vapour at the site may contain substances that can poison plants and animals

Such sites may also release substances offsite that can:

  • Harm fish or mammals
  • Impair the reproduction of birds
  • Accumulate in the food web

These effects may be severe enough to impair or imbalance ecological functions or systems.  

Legal reasons

  • To ensure the legislative mandate to protect humans and the environment in B.C. is fulfilled
  • To address potential hazards, both numerical and risk-based standards are defined in the CSR and used to manage contaminated sites in B.C.

The numerical standards in Schedules 3.1, 3.2, 3.3 and 3.4 of the CSR are derived in accordance with Protocol 28: Standards Derivation Methods (PDF, 3.2MB) and prescribed in the CSR by a regulatory amendment.


Types of standards

The EMA and the CSR define 3 terms relating to standards:

Numerical standards

Numerical standards define acceptable concentrations of substances in soil, groundwater, vapour and sediments.

Review sections 11 and 17 of the CSR. 

Risk-based standards

Risk-based standards define acceptable risk levels to protect both the environment and human health from exposure to substances at sites.

Unlike numerical standards, legally, the risk-based standards cannot be used to determine if a site is contaminated.

Review sections 18 and 18.1 of the CSR and Protocol 1: Detailed Risk Assessment (Revised) (PDF, 559KB).

Remediation standards

Remediation standards are used in the remediation process to manage contamination on or from a contaminated site.

Review sections 17, 18 and 18.1 of the CSR.

Where standards do not exist in a schedule, it may be a case of having a non-prescribed substance. While there's no requirement under the EMA or the CSR to include a substance that does not have a prescribed numerical standard, it's acceptable to include non-regulated substances in applications to obtain a ministry certification document (for example, Approval in Principle, Certificate of Compliance) under the CSR. 

If a non-prescribed substance is considered by a director to be sufficiently toxic that it would pose a significant risk to human or environmental health, the director may elect to not issue the instrument, may establish a Director's Interim Standard under section 11(1)(d) of the Regulation for the non-prescribed substance, or may impose requirements that the director considers necessary to mitigate or eliminate the risk posed by the non-prescribed substance.

Information for non-regulated substances evaluated in risk assessment can be found in Protocol 1: Detailed Risk Assessment (Revised) (PDF, 559KB).

Learn more about types of standards.

How to apply standards

Review the general steps on how to apply standards.

For details on how to compare generic or matrix numerical standards specific to each media, review the pages and select the relevant media:

Select applicable land, water, sediment and vapour uses

A land use is established based on the activities occurring at the surface of the site using the land use definitions in the CSR.

Ultimately, a director may specify the applicable land, water and sediment uses for a site.

Subsection 12(5) of the CSR lists the factors the director must consider in making such a ruling for a site. 

The CSR defines 8 different land uses:

  1. Wildlands natural (WLN)
  2. Wildlands reverted (WLR)
  3. Agricultural (AL)
  4. Urban park (PL)
  5. Residential low density (RLLD)
  6. Residential high density (RLHD)
  7. Commercial (CL)
  8. Industrial (IL)

Clarification on commonly misunderstood land uses:

  • The primary purpose of wildlands land uses is to support natural ecosystems
    • The natural wildlands land use is for those protected areas listed in Schedule 2.1 of the CSR
    • The reverted wildlands land use is for those protected areas listed in Schedule 2.1 of the CSR that formerly had agriculture, commercial, industrial, urban park or residential land use, but the land will revert back to a natural ecosystem
  • Urban park land use is for the primary purpose of outdoor recreation and would not apply to wildlands, such as ecological reserves, national or provincial parks, protected wetlands or woodlands, native forests, tundra, or alpine meadows
  • Commercial and industrial uses differ with commercial land use for the primary purpose of buying, selling, or trading of merchandise or services versus industrial land use for the primary purpose of conducting industrial manufacturing and assembling processes and their ancillary uses

Multiple land uses

There may be cases where a primary land use is identified for a site or parts of a site where multiple activities occur in the same space.

Primary land use can be established as per section 12(5) of the Regulation and using the criteria provided in Protocol 18: Criteria for Establishing Multiple Land Uses at Sites (PDF, 142KB)

Multiple water uses

The CSR deals with water uses differently than land use.

Where multiple water uses apply at a site, the presence of contamination must be determined using the most stringent of all the applicable numerical water standards. Different water uses might apply to different sections of a site.

Since water at a site may be used for several different purposes, more than one water use can apply.

Standards are used to determine if a site is contaminated, as outlined in Part 5 of the CSR, by comparing the results of site investigations with numerical standards, depending on which environmental media are involved.

Under the CSR, only the numerical soil, water, vapour and sediment standards are used to determine if a site is a contaminated site.

The process for determining if a site is contaminated can be found on Identifying if a site is contaminated.

Standards are used to determine when soil relocation, outlined in Part 8 of the CSR, may occur.

The process for relocating contaminated soil is found on Soil relocation.

Following site investigation, site owners and operators may choose either the numerical or risk-based standards as remediation standards to show that a site has been satisfactorily remediated.  

Numerical and risk-based standards are compared to post-remediation confirmatory results obtained at the site. If the confirmatory results indicate that the substance concentrations are below the applicable standard, then the site would be considered satisfactorily remediated, subject to a director’s decision.

In this case, the CSR subsection 17(3) specifies that regardless of the use of the land at the surface of a site, soil below 3m from the surface of a site need only be remediated to numerical soil standards for industrial land.

As well, section 17(1)(d) and (e) contains several provisions related to oil and gas drilling sites where the applicable standards vary with depth from surface land use. Specific provisions for oil and gas drilling sites also appear in sections 11(c.2) and (c.3) in the CSR.

Standards governing the toxicity to soil invertebrates and plants provide differing levels of protection, based on the land use identified for a site.

They’re not ‘zero impact’ or ‘no effect’ standards: at sites cleaned up to meet the standards for protecting soil invertebrates and plants from toxicity, there may still be some adverse impact on terrestrial organisms. This is particularly true for the commercial and industrial soil standards where the level of protection is the least stringent.

Human health protection soil standards are derived in consideration of the adverse health effects from direct exposure to contaminants by the intake of contaminated soil, but the equation uses apportionment to account for total exposure to additional indirect soil contaminants. 

Standards mainly protect communities of organisms.

Within an ecological context, it's considered acceptable to tolerate some adverse impact on individual organisms at commercial and industrial sites if protection at the species level is maintained.

Protection levels for species at risk are at the individual level in alignment with government policy.    

Review ecological protection levels in Protocol 1: Detailed Risk Assessment (Revised) (PDF, 559KB).

Aquatic life standards in the CSR mainly provide a protection level less than, or equal to, a 20% effect level (EC20).

Drinking water standards are fully protective of human health.

Generic numerical sediment standards are like the matrix numerical soil standards. Protection goals focus on protecting populations of species and communities.

At sites with sensitive habitats, the principal goal is to restore sediments to a state that will facilitate restoration of productive and diverse benthic macroinvertebrate communities in the near term and to minimize the risks to organisms at higher trophic levels in the food web.

Sediment standards define concentrations of substances below which there's a relatively low probability (about 20%) of significant adverse effects in standardized toxicity tests with sensitive benthic species and life stages.

Generic numerical vapour standards are fully protective of human health.


The information on this web page does not replace the legislative requirements in the EMA or its regulations and it does not list all provisions for contaminated site services.

If there are differences between this information and the Act, Regulation, or Protocols, the Act, Regulation, and Protocols apply.