Types of standards

The Environmental Management Act (EMA) and Contaminated Site Regulation (CSR) define the following general types of standards.

Numerical standards

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

There are several types of numerical standards:

  • Matrix soil numerical standards
    • A detailed matrix of environmental and human health-protective standards for various site-specific exposure pathways and conditions
  • Generic numerical standards
    • To protect human health and the environment at any site without any consideration of site-specific features
  • Site-specific numerical standards
    • Derived under a protocol using models, equations, site data and specific site information
    • Site specific numerical standards apply only to the specific site for which they were derived
  • Local background concentrations
    • Calculated or selected from regional table values described in Protocols 4 or 9
  • Director’s interim numerical standards
    • Environmental quality standards for a substance that a director of waste management has the legal power to adopt when necessary to protect human or ecological health
    • A director’s interim standard has the same legal effect as a standard defined in a schedule in the Regulation
    • However, a director’s interim standard ceases to have legal effect after one year, unless it's adopted into the Regulation

Risk-based standards

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

The risk-based standards take the form of specified risk levels to be used in human health and ecological risk assessment.

Unlike numerical standards, risk-based standards cannot be used to determine if a site is contaminated or delineated. They can be used to determine if a site has been satisfactorily remediated.

Remediation standards are used in the remediation process to manage contamination on or from a contaminated site. These are target levels for clean-up and determine when a site has been sufficiently remediated.

In the case where no standards exist in a schedule, review the non-prescribed standards on the Standards page.

4 standards for environmental media

There are 4 specific types of standards for environmental media in the CSR:

  • Soil
  • Water
  • Vapour
  • Sediment

Soil standards

Applicable land uses

Generic and matrix numerical soil standards are provided for 8 different land uses in Schedule 3.1, Parts 1, 2 and 3:

  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)

A substance listed in Schedule 3.1 will only have either generic or matrix numerical soil standards. 

Natural wildlands (WLN) and reverted wildlands (WLR) soil standards can be found in Schedule 3.1 of the CSR.

Information found in the map of natural wildlands can assist in the interpretation and application of wildlands land use under the CSR. 

Selecting soil standards

Matrix numerical soil standards

Each matrix applies to a substance or group of substances and contains 2 main sections:

  • Human health protection
  • Environmental (ecological health) protection

Each section contains a listing of the relevant site-specific factors and their corresponding standards.

The 8 different land uses presented in the matrix are the same 8 land uses provided for in the generic numerical soil standards. While these standards are for concentrations of substances in soil, some factors ultimately protect water uses. 

Site-specific factors

Each matrix lists 8 site-specific factors and 8 land uses for a substance.

If a box is blank, the ministry was unable to set a concentration as a standard for a substance.

As specified in section 12(8) of the CSR, there are 2 matrix factors that are mandatory and must be applied at every site:

  • Intake of contaminated soil in the human health protection section
  • Toxicity to soil invertebrates and plants in the environmental protection section

For human health protection, direct exposure by inadvertent soil ingestion is considered the key site-specific factor and it's mandatory that it be applied at every site. Indirect exposure through drinking water, while not universally applicable, is also commonly considered to be broadly applicable since contaminants often leach from soil into surface water and groundwater. 

For environmental protection, both direct and indirect routes of exposure to soil contaminants are considered and address the protection of soil invertebrates and plants, such as livestock ingesting soil and fodder, soil microbes and groundwater used for aquatic life, livestock watering and irrigation.

The key site-specific factor that's mandatory and must be applied at all sites is direct toxicity to plants and soil invertebrates. Soil invertebrates and plants are the most common environmental organisms found on contaminated sites. In addition, for common substances, standardized toxicity data exists for earthworms and leafy plants that grow quickly, such as lettuce.

Selecting site-specific factors

The standards for the additional matrix site-specific factors are not mandatory and are applicable only if they're relevant to a particular site.

Review Table 4A-1 in Protocol 28: Standard Derivation Methods (PDF, 3.2MB). The applicable standards are defined by the CSR. For example, section 12 describes the specification of factors at a site.

A Director may specify any of the applicable land uses, water uses to be protected, and any other site-specific factors for a site if the matrix numerical standards approach is being used.

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Use of a matrix

The critical (most stringent applicable) matrix standard for a substance at a site is chosen by considering all the standards that apply in the matrix for that substance.

This is done by first determining the appropriate land use and then identifying the mandatory and other applicable site-specific factors.

The most stringent matrix value for the applicable land use among the mandatory and relevant site-specific factors is the numerical standard for that substance.

Generic numerical soil standards

The concentration of a substance in soil is compared with the applicable generic numerical soil standards in Schedules 3.1, Part 2 (human health) and Part 3 (ecological health) of the Regulation.

If the concentration is greater than the applicable standard, the site is a contaminated site. If, however, the soil concentration of the substance is less than the applicable standard, the site would not be considered contaminated in relation to that specific investigation result.

Site-specific numerical soil standards 

In accordance with Protocol 2: Site-specific Numerical Soil Standards (PDF, 550KB), if sufficient site-specific data are available, site-specific numerical soil standards (SSSs) may be calculated for substances for which matrix standards apply at the site.

Soil leaching tests for use in deriving SSSs can be found in Protocol 27: Soil Leaching Tests for Use in Deriving Site-Specific Numerical Soil Standards (PDF, 367KB).

SSSs cannot be derived for substances for which generic soil standards are provided in Schedule 3.1, Parts 2 and 3.

Local background concentrations 

Local background concentrations in soil can be established as per sections 11 and 17 of the CSR to replace the soil standards defined in Schedule 3.1 by using the information and process outlined in Protocol 4: Establishing Local Background Concentrations in Soil (Revised) (PDF, 967KB) in Soil. 

Soil standards for the protection of groundwater

Applicable land uses

Standards for groundwater are within the matrix numerical soil standards as 3 of the 8 site-specific factors for the 8 different land uses in Schedule 3.1, Part 1.

Site-specific factors for groundwater are for:

  • Drinking water 
  • Livestock watering
  • Irrigation water
  • Flow to surface water used by aquatic life

Applicable water uses

Generic numerical water standards, defined in Schedule 3.2 of the CSR, are requirements to protect the environment from unacceptable ground and surface water quality at sites.

Generic numerical water standards are provided for 4 different water uses:

  • Aquatic life (AW)
  • Irrigation water (IW)
  • Livestock watering (LW)
  • Drinking water (DW)

Local background concentrations in groundwater can be established as per sections 11 and 17 of the CSR to replace the generic water standards defined in Schedule 3.2 by using the information and process outlined in Protocol 9: Determining Local Background Groundwater Quality (Revised) (PDF, 400KB).

Selecting water standards

Section 12 of the CSR specifies the water uses that may apply at sites in B.C., including aquatic life, drinking, irrigation and livestock watering water uses, as well as the factors a director must consider in determining current and reasonable potential future water uses at a site.

The following resources provide criteria for determining current and reasonable potential future water uses at specific sites:

Where drinking water use applies to groundwater at a site under Protocol 21, but site-specific circumstances indicate that it's unlikely or unreasonable to anticipate that groundwater would in fact be used as drinking water, a site-specific water use decision may be sought from the director. Protocol 21 outlines a multiple-lines-of-evidence approach for seeking a director’s decision of no drinking water use at a specific site.  

Where the water is transitional between freshwater and marine/estuarine water, or if a responsible person elects not to characterize the salinity per se, the more stringent of the freshwater or marine/estuarine standards or guidelines should be used.

Additional guidance and specific geographical boundaries for the Fraser River are found in Technical Guidance 15: Concentration Limits for the Protection of Aquatic Receiving Environments (PDF, 288KB).

Applicable vapour uses

Generic numerical vapour standards are provided in Schedule 3.3 for 4 vapour uses:

  • Agricultural, Urban park, Residential 
  • Commercial
  • Industrial 
  • Parkade 

Vapour uses are not the same as land uses.

Selecting vapour standards

Vapour contamination exists if the concentration of any potential contaminant of concern in soil vapour that's associated with a soil, sediment, or water source exceeds its Schedule 3.3 standard.

The breathing zone is an area where humans can come into direct contact with contaminated vapour. This can include indoor and outdoor, onsite and offsite environments that exist at the time of site assessment or that have a reasonable potential to exist after site remediation is complete. Both soil and vapour and the breathing zone are typically evaluated at contaminated sites.

There are 3 approaches to estimate the concentrations of vapour substances in the breathing zone:

  • Approach A
    • Estimation based on subsurface and/or sub-slab vapour measurements
  • Approach B
    • Direct vapour measurement in a breathing zone 
  • Approach C
    • Estimation of vapour concentrations in a breathing zone based on soil and/or groundwater measurements

Technical Guidance 4: Vapour Investigation and Remediation (PDF, 358KB) provides further details on these approaches.

Approaches A and C may include the application of vapour attenuation factors (VAFs) to measure or estimate subsurface or sub-slab vapour concentrations.

The application of VAFs, including conditions for use, precluding conditions and the attenuation factors are detailed in Protocol 22: Application of Vapour Attenuation Factors to Characterize Vapour Contamination (PDF, 421KB).  

Applicable sediment uses

Generic numerical sediment standards are provided in Schedule 3.4.

Sediment standards have been developed for freshwater and estuarine/marine sediments and for both sensitive and typical sediment use:  

  • Sensitive freshwater
  • Typical freshwater
  • Sensitive marine water
  • Typical marine water

Sensitive sediment use means the use of sediment as habitat for sensitive components of aquatic ecosystems as specified in Part 1 of the CSR. Typical sediment use applies at a site that's not considered sensitive sediment, based on its biological resources.

Selecting sediment standards

In areas that transition from freshwater to estuarine water, the lower (more stringent) of the freshwater or marine sediment standards applies.

The generic and matrix numerical soil standards (Schedule 3.1) are not intended for use in the assessment of sediments that are (temporarily) underwater. However, soil standards are applicable where sediments are deposited on land or in other select circumstances.  

The Schedule 3.4 sediment standards are limited to the protection of aquatic life. Where sediments may be temporarily exposed (for example, an intertidal zone) the potential for human contact can also exist.

For these temporarily exposed sediments, in addition to the application of the sediment standards, the soil standards for protection of human health (such as, the Schedule 3.1, Part 2 generic numerical standards or the Schedule 3.1, Part 1 'Intake of contaminated soil' matrix standards) can be used to consider whether human health risks should be assessed.   

Risk-based standards for remediating contaminated sites are prescribed in sections 18 and 18.1 of the CSR. 

The application of risk-based standards requires the completion of a human and environmental health risk assessment that assesses risks posed to human and environmental receptors from exposure to contaminating substances at a site. Often this involves complex technical and scientific analysis.  

Learn more about risk assessment at contaminated sites in B.C.

Risks may be assessed by one of 2 different methods:

Compliance with risk-based standards is demonstrated when:

  • Screening level risk assessment indicates that there are no operative exposure pathways for contaminating substances contacting human or environmental receptors
  • Screening level risk assessment indicates that after partial removal of a contaminating substance or the implementation of risk management controls, there are no operative exposure pathways for human or environmental receptors to contact the remaining contamination 
  • Detailed risk assessment indicates risks to human and environmental health from a contaminating substance are less than or equal to the risk-based standards of the CSR
  • Detailed risk assessment indicates that after partial removal of a contaminating substance or the implementation of risk management controls, risks to human and environmental health from remaining contamination is less than or equal to the risk-based standards of the CSR 

Where risk management controls are implemented at a site to meet the risk-based standards, the requisite risk controls must be maintained and their ongoing effectiveness monitored and verified through performance verification plans.

Where contaminating substances at a site are demonstrated based on a screening level or detailed risk assessment in compliance with the risk-based standards, the site is satisfactorily remediated, subject to a decision by a director.


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.