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Brownfields: The Financial, Legislative and Social Aspects of the Redevelopment of Contaminated Commercial and Industrial Properties
(Released August 2000)

 
  by Pam McKeehan  

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Every major American city recycles paper, glass, aluminum cans, plastics, and metals to some extent. It is time to start recycling a very precious commodity -- our land.

Brownfields are vacant, abandoned, or underutilized commercial and industrial properties, where real or perceived environmental contamination is an obstacle to redevelopment or utilization. By one estimate, there are over 600,000 brownfields in the U.S. alone. The U.S. Conference of Mayors third annual brownfields report, Recycling America's Land: A National Report on Brownfields Redevelopment (February 2000), listed 201 cities that contain more than 81,568 acres of brownfields. This acreage is nearly the same as the total land area of the cities of Minneapolis and Pittsburgh combined.

Benefits of brownfields redevelopment include:
--- Tax base growth
--- Job creation
--- Improved population capacity (through neighborhood revitalization)
--- Preservation of farmlands and "greenfields" (untouched, pristine land) as a tangible means of curbing sprawl
--- Removal of potentially harmful chemical elements from urban communities

Impediments to brownfields redevelopment include:
--- Lack of funding for cleanup
--- Liability concerns for owners and redevelopers arising from Superfund legislation (see below)
--- Requirements for expensive environmental assessments
--- Uncertainty over cleanup standards

Some measures have been taken to help communities with brownfields redevelopment. EPA's Brownfields Program has provided over 500 pilot grants to communities totaling over $156 million. The program encourages communities to clean up their own brownfields and seeks private investment as a source of funding. Site assessment grants in the amount of $200,000 have already leveraged over $2 billion in cleanup and redevelopment funding, returned hundreds of properties to a productive state, and created more than 6,000 jobs.

Another effort to encourage productive use of brownfields, the Brightfields Initiative, is sponsored by the Department of Energy, along with local governments and industries. The purpose of this initiative is to bring pollution-free solar energy and high-tech solar manufacturing jobs to brownfields. In Chicago, Illinois, for example, Spire Corporation is manufacturing solar panels on the site of a former brownfield. The completed solar energy system will supply the company's electricity needs, and will serve as a demonstration and educational site. Cape Charles, Virginia; Stamford, Connecticut; Los Angeles, California; and Washington, D.C. are among other communities pursuing brightfields as part of their brownfields redevelopment strategies. Advantages of this approach include the restoration of properties to productive use, creation of high-tech jobs in blighted urban neighborhoods, and improvement of air quality through a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Another program dedicated to the cleanup of brownfields is Superfund, also known as The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). This federal initiative designates responsibility for site pollution and cleanup costs, and pays for unrecoverable expenses out of a trust fund. The bill also provides guidelines for the release of hazardous pollutants. Superfund's National Priorities List ranks sites according to their remediation needs.

Superfund's benefits have been partially offset by liability problems. Many brownfield sites are not considered contaminated enough to qualify for cleanup according to the National Priorities List, and responsibility for the cleanup passes to the investors and/or new owners. These parties want assurances that they will not be held liable for contamination that they did not cause. Some critics of Superfund contend that removing liability from them would reduce financial risk and spur private investment and development.

Another program is the EPA's Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Brownfields Prevention Initiative. Through this initiative, the EPA hopes to identify and understand impediments to cleanup and reuse of brownfield sites. Four companies chosen in March 2000 to pilot the initiative are Bethlehem Steel Corporation in Lackawanna, New York; Blue Valley Redevelopment Team in Kansas City, Missouri; CBS in Bridgeport, Connecticut; and PECO Energy Company in Chester, Pennsylvania. In the course of the program, each company will clean up a brownfield. For example, the 88-acre PECO Energy Company site (which includes 3,200 feet of waterfront) is to be cleaned of all hazardous wastes, including petroleum products, and ultimately transformed into a waterfront park with a marina, retail shops, a public exhibition hall and a sports/entertainment center.

Among major success stories in brownfield cleanup is the remediation and redevelopment of the Trenton, New Jersey waterfront. Formerly the site of a steel manufacturing facility, the 31-acre site now contains Mercer County Waterfront Stadium, the River View Office Park and the Katmandu Restaurant. In recognition of this achievement, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection was given the coveted "Phoenix Award" -- a national award of distinction for brownfield redevelopment.

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