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The Planet

Progress on Brownfields

The Planet, July/August 1997, Volume 4, number 6

by Paula Carrell
State Program Coordinator

The term "brownfields" entered most of our vocabularies about a year ago. As opposed to "greenfields" -- undeveloped land at the urban periphery -- it refers to contaminated sites, sources of pollution in the heart of communities, for which no one is taking responsibility or for which no cleanup is likely in the foreseeable future. Brownfields are usually former industrial sites, often abandoned ones.

The brownfields concept is a double-edged sword. The idea is to facilitate the cleanup of contaminated urban sites in order to rejuvenate abandoned, polluted neighborhoods, restore jobs and protect undeveloped lands beyond city limits by redeveloping their neglected urban cores.

Sadly, there are many who speak of cleanup and revitalization out of one side of their mouths while lobbying state legislatures across the country for weaker cleanup standards, shifting cleanup costs to the taxpayer, and liability relief for responsible parties.

The Sierra Club and other local and regional environmental advocates have been working to shape these state brownfields bills. As a result, several of the laws enacted in 1997 are turning out -- despite the worst intentions of some of their sponsors -- to have positive implications for the environment. A sampling follows.

The brownfields bill enacted this year will bring money and attention to the cleanup of contaminated sites. It provides only the most limited liability exemptions for pollution. A beefed-up regulatory staff, supported by the new industry fees, will supervise the cleanup of polluted sites that have been ignored.

The Sierra Club was the only public-interest group represented at legislative hearings and behind-the-scenes negotiations on the bill. Club amendments to the bill virtually ensure that taxpayers will not end up bailing out polluting industries. And community groups can still sue for damages that may have been caused by site contamination.

Environmentalists' influence is apparent in the final Maryland brownfields bill -- among the best to date. It allows choice of cleanup standards among various federal or state water or soil standards, or site-specific risk assessments -- a creative solution that provides enforceable protection without sacrificing flexibility. The law also gives the state authority to reopen botched cleanups.

As expected, Florida's new pro-business, Republican-dominated legislature approved a Brownfields Redevelopment Act this session. A welcome surprise was a series of amendments to protect environmental and community health concerns, which survived four months of contentious negotiating sessions. The Florida Chapter led the environmental coalition working on the bill.

The bill retains Florida's cleanup standard of one cancer death in 1 million people exposed, limits immunity to those parties who in no way contributed to site pollution, and provides for public-agency oversight of brownfield cleanups, rather than oversight by private parties. It also includes strong provisions for environmental justice and citizen participation.

Believing that a voluntary program that supplements -- rather than displaces -- mandatory cleanup programs will increase the number of sites actually cleaned up, the Rio Grande Chapter engaged in extensive negotiations with the Environment Department to develop numerous strengthening provisions. The law provides two major incentives to landowners to clean up contaminated sites voluntarily. First, enforcement actions against the owner will be suspended during the period of the cleanup. (The state retains the right to cancel the agreement and take enforcement action if needed.) Second, upon completion of the cleanup, the owner receives a "certificate of completion" that should enhance the marketability of the property.

The act provides for full state oversight of the process, and full supervisory authority over the actual cleanup. Environmental justice considerations are addressed by a provision that action on all applications must be on a first come, first served basis.

The Arizona Legislature this year created a greenfields program, so-called because it takes incremental steps to clean up minor soil contamination in a pilot program for 100 vacant inner-city properties. The author, state Sen. Mark Spitzer, was motivated by a vacant lot in his district that remained idle because of some vague "environmental problem" -- lenders and buyers avoid property that might entail lengthy and expensive remediation. It's just one cause of the urban sprawl that consumes more of the Sonoran desert each day. Club activists were heartened by a provision that set standards for environmental consultants.

For more information: Contact Paula Carrell at (415) 977-5668;

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