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