Brownfields program makes cleanup profitable

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Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

While Congress and President Bush allow the Superfund cleanup program to bleed out, they're pumping money into a related program called "Brownfields." In January, President Bush approved $250 million for Brownfields, and is now asking Congress to double the program's funding over the next five years.

Spawned from the 1980 law that created Superfund, the Brownfields program didn't hit its stride until 1997, two years after the Superfund "polluter tax" expired. Led by then Vice President Al Gore, the Clinton administration expanded the program, which "redevelops" contaminated sites into everything from malls to apartments, sport stadiums to parks. The program is popular among free-market economists because, rather than forcing developers to clean up polluted sites, the EPA provides incentives, such as grants and tax breaks, which make cleanup a profitable business venture.

"We're realizing there are a lot (of sites) out there that aren't being cleaned up under Superfund," says Kathy Atencio, the EPA's Region 8 Brownfield Coordinator. "But there has to be a drive to actually clean up these sites. There has to be interest in reusing (them)."

The Brownfields program is meant to be "locally driven," says Atencio. The EPA offers technical assistance and some funding, but local agencies are responsible for the actual cleanup.

The effectiveness of the program has varied across the West as city, state and tribal governments have struggled to find businesses interested in revitalizing sites. Environmental groups also gripe that sites are not always cleaned to safe standards, and that taxpayers, not polluters, end up paying for the bulk of the work.

But the Brownfields program appeals to many groups: Corporations that buy Brownfield sites are freed of liability for the pollution; businesses and nonprofit organizations receive tax breaks and grant money; and cities get their contaminated sites cleaned up without the stigma of Superfund.

Showcase communities

"The beauty of the (Brownfields) law is that whoever buys (the property) will clean it, put it into reuse, and the federal and state government won't be breathing down your neck," says Brian Lane with the City of Denver's Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

In the 1980s, Denver used the Brownfields model to revitalize its Central Platte Valley, a section of the city trashed by landfills, radium processing plants, and rail yards. The city offered private businesses incentives to develop these abandoned sites, and developers ran with the idea. Six Flags Amusement Park, Coors Field, Commons Park, the Pepsi Center Arena and the REI Flagship store are all Brownfield success stories.

Then, in 2000, as part of Vice President Gore's Brownfields National Partnership, Denver became one of the EPA's "Brownfield Showcase Communities." Now the city is using federal grant money to kickstart redevelopment in four of its polluted and economically distressed neighborhoods.

That same year, the EPA also named Arizona's Gila River Indian Community a Showcase Community. Lured by cheap Bureau of Indian Affairs leases, the military and private industry had set up shop on the reservation, leaving behind messes the federal government had little interest in cleaning up under Superfund.

"Tribes are in a position where there are not that many resources available for assessment, never mind cleanup (of contaminated sites)," says Pat Mariella, director of the Gila River Indian Community's Department of Environmental Quality. In 1997, when three million tires caught fire at the privately owned Blackwater Industrial Park, the tribe was left with a mess of biblical proportions. According to Mariella, if it weren't for the EPA's Brownfields program, the property never would have been cleaned.

"There is a lot of failed economic development on Indian land," says Steve Simanonok, the EPA's Region 9 Brownfield Coordinator. "(Our program) gives them the opportunity to clean up old problems and create a vision of sustainability."

But tribes still have a hard time finding the money for redevelopment, or coaxing private - and environmentally responsible - businesses onto the reservation. Even though the tribe cleaned the Blackwater site to commercial standards, the property still awaits "redevelopment."

"Pave and wave"

Critics say the Brownfields program, which often tackles sites just as polluted as Superfund sites, is not always up to the challenge.

"A less-extensive cleanup is the pedigree of Brownfields," says Robert Hersh, Brownfield program director for the nonprofit Center for Public Environmental Oversight. When sites are cleaned up under state rather than federal regulations, the pollution is usually not removed, but "contained" in storage reservoirs or "capped" with clean soil.

Critics have also dubbed the Brownfields program the "pave and wave" strategy, because sites are not monitored once they've been cleaned and redeveloped. "With voluntary cleanup, the regulatory vigilance has been shifted to real estate instruments, like deeds and restrictive covenants, that will be considered when a property is sold," says Hersh.

Nonetheless, in January 2002, President Bush signed a law expanding the Brownfields program. The "Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act" increases funding for Brownfields, and makes mining properties and petroleum sites, such as gas stations and underground storage tanks, eligible for the funds. In the 1980s, the oil industry convinced Congress that since it was already paying into the "polluter tax," it should be exempt from liability for cleanup at its sites. Now, petroleum sites - which could account for half of the estimated one million Brownfields nationwide - can be cleaned up with money that comes straight from taxpayers' pockets.

"The Bush administration is using Brownfields as a way to claim successes - to show that they're doing something good for the environment," says Allen Mattison with the Sierra Club in Washington D.C. In fact, he says, the administration is simply using Brownfields to shift the financial burden of cleanup from polluters to the general public.

"The crux of the whole problem comes down to the fact that the 'polluter pays' tax has expired," he says. "Where do politicians stand in protecting communities? Are they trying to clean up communities, or help big companies pad their profits?"


Laura Paskus is assistant editor for HCN.

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