Sierra Club: The Planet-- 1996
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The Planet
Brownfields Ahead: Proceed with Caution

by John Stouffer

Atlantic Chapter Legislative Director

It's rare that a term coined to describe something as odious as a contaminated industrial site can transport many within earshot to a state of near-bliss. That, however, seems to be the peculiar power of the word "brownfields." And while the concept behind brownfields proposals is laudable -- that is, rehabilitating the abandoned industrial sites that dot our urban landscapes -- environmentalists should cast a wary eye on any brownfields bills now making their way through many state legislatures. As always, the devil is in the details.

Along with being ugly, brownfields sites are often brimming with hazardous materials and largely defy attempts at redevelopment by financial institutions, or by the municipalities that surround them. They often pose hazards to their neighbors, and usually contribute nothing to the local tax base. Cleaning them up and making them productive again, therefore, would benefit everyone. Wouldn't it?

Further, residents living next to these sites look to brownfields projects as job-creating, "environmental justice" efforts for their disadvantaged communities. Others see them as a way to protect green space outside the urban core by redeveloping brownfields in place of new urban sprawl. All of these good things could indeed happen -- so long as good intentions are not abused by developers in search of cheap, low-oversight projects.

In some states, though, brownfields laws enacted without an understanding of the real barriers to contaminated site-redevelopment have resulted in repeal of health-based cleanup standards and overall weakening of cleanup programs.

Problems occur because the brownfields debate tends to center on speeding economic revitalization. Environmental quality concerns, such as protection of public health and prevention of sprawling new industrial development, have been secondary considerations. Since the focus is on economics, much of the legislation is designed not so much to eliminate the public health threats at the sites as to remove barriers to their redevelopment.

The theory behind much of the legislation and policy proposed on brownfields is as follows: Liability for existing contamination at these sites is a barrier to redevelopment. Therefore, to encourage redevelopment, we must expedite any required cleanup at the site. In most cases, this boils down to reducing the target standards for site cleanup, eliminating offsite testing requirements, restricting public participation, providing a liability waiver for any future cleanup at the sites and, in some cases, removing any liability adhering to municipalities and financial institutions. The driving forces behind these policies tend to be large real-estate interests, municipalities, financial institutions and industry.

In practice, legislative proposals and individual projects demand closer scrutiny. Reading a typical bill, one imagines a weedgrown, fenced tract left behind by the defunct gas station or steel fabricating plant of an unregulated yesterday. However, nothing in many of the recently enacted brownfields laws ensures that freshly contaminated sites won't come into existence years or decades hence precisely because a brownfields cleanup option with reduced standards and liability relief will be available. It is essential to limit brownfields programs to past contamination so as not to encourage more pollution and the creation of new hazardous sites.

A key component of brownfields redevelopment proposals is that the contamination at these sites need only be cleaned up to levels commensurate with the new proposed industrial/commercial use. The Sierra Club tends to believe that lowering cleanup standards for contaminated sites threatens the health of current and future populations exposed to those sites. It also increases the possibility that unremediated contaminants will migrate off-site and cause health and environmental damage over time. At best, superficial clean-ups transfer risks and costs to future generations in order to suit the convenience of today's political constituencies -- precisely the same short- sighted, self-serving logic that got us into this mess in the first place.


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