If egotism is “the art of seeing in yourself what others cannot see,” Vice President Al Gore is a master. He is the self-described father of the Internet, discoverer of Love Canal, and now the champion of “brownfields.” As part of his latest stump speech, Mr. Gore is boasting that his brownfields revitalization programs have cleaned up contaminated waste at 30,000 sites throughout the country, leveraged billions of dollars in private funding for redevelopment and brought thousands of new jobs to areas previously blighted by industrial pollution.
Moreover, Mr. Gore is berating what he calls the “Do Nothing for the People” Senate leadership for blocking brownfields legislation he says would provide legal protection to businesses and proper incentives for states. But while there is plenty of blame to go around Washington for inaction on meaningful brownfields reform, Mr. Gore and the Environmental Protection Agency EPA have been a particularly large obstacle. Furthermore, a close look at the brownfields programs and policies Mr. Gore champions shows a failure to get the job done reminiscent of the flawed federal Superfund program. Consider the following:
Mr. Gore sings the praises of a program he helped launch but which falls far short. According to the vice president, the Brownfields Economic Redevelopment Initiative, the administration’s principal brownfields cleanup program which Mr. Gore initiated, is “working literally in hundreds of communities,” creating more than 5,000 new jobs and generating an investment return of $25 for every $1 in grant money. Yet the EPA’s own inspector general, who audited the program, tells a different story: “While the enthusiasm for EPA’s brownfields initiative was readily apparent the impact was less evident.” According to the IG’s report, many of the regulations and requirements of the federal program impede local efforts to remediate the sites and have “little impact on actual redevelopment.” At one site reviewed in the report, city officials estimated that due to federal requirements that the city hold community involvement activities and write detailed land use plans, it would take 50 years to clean up and redevelop the property. Investigators also found that the cost of meeting these requirements consumed the bulk of funding that was supposed to go toward actual cleanup preparation. For example, out of $1 million authorized to assess the degree of contamination at five pilot sites, only $65,000, just 6 percent, was actually spent on assessing the sites. The rest was spent on community involvement and inventory list requirements.
Mr. Gore has done little to provide needed liability relief for state and local brownfield cleanup efforts. Mr. Gore summoned Gov. George W. Bush to end the impasse in the Senate so Congress can enact meaningful liability protection, an important component of brownfields redevelopment because it shields innocent parties from bearing exorbitant costs and lowers the risks involved in cleanup. But the Clinton-Gore administration is as responsible as Congress, if not more so, for paralysis on federal liability reform. Ironically, it has been the states, not Washington, that have been the leaders in providing liability relief to innocent parties involved in the cleanup. But states can only do so much because their laws are superseded by federal laws, which hold parties potentially responsible under strict and joint-and-several liability. Back in 1996, a GAO report identified federal liability laws as “one of the major disincentives to redeveloping brownfields.” But the administration has opposed every past legislative effort to change these requirements, subjecting brownfields to the same liability quagmire that has sunk Superfund efforts.
Mr. Gore assumes credit that rightfully belongs to the states and cities. Al Gore seeks unmerited credit for the success of brownfields revitalization projects. It has been the states that have been the leaders in brownfield cleanups, not Washington. Collectively, the states have cleaned up more than 40,000 contaminated sites over the last decade, rejuvenating impoverished urban centers with new jobs and investment and protecting undeveloped land from urban sprawl. Conversely, the Clinton-Gore administration’s policies have, in many respects, hurt environmental protection by discouraging cleanup efforts through its onerous requirements and liability laws. As a city official from Boston told the Senate Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee last November, he did not recommend the federal program to most developers who come to him for help because “it simply has shown to be more trouble than it is worth.” Ironically, it is because the states have intentionally deviated from federal policies, opting for incentives over harsh enforcement standards and liability relief for innocent parties, that they have been so successful.
It is hard to hide from the facts, even in an election. If Mr. Gore wants to call himself a reformer of brownfields, he must reverse the federal policies that impede state and local efforts and amend liability laws that stigmatize redevelopment as risky business. Most of all, he must get out of the way of state and local officials, the rightful heroes of brownfields reform.