Revitalizing Urban America: Cleaning up the Brownfields

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Despite Washington’s costly, expansive programs, policies, and regulations directed at the nation’s old, abandoned industrial sites, it is the states that are leading the charge against “brownfields,” not the federal government.  Collectively, the states over the last decade have cleaned up and returned more than 40,000 sites under various state programs.  In the process, they have successfully rejuvenated impoverished urban centers, creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs, and generating millions of dollars in new tax revenue.  They have also helped to preserve unused, undeveloped land in suburban or rural areas—called “greenfields”—protecting these areas from urban sprawl.

All but four states currently operate some form of a voluntary brownfield-cleanup program.  Their success has been due largely to new and creative approaches that encourage potential developers to clean up the property and restore it to use.  The state programs typically deviate from federal policy by emphasizing incentives over harsh enforcement standards, liability relief for innocent parties over unfair and debilitating liability laws, risk-based remediation requirements over one-size-fits-all policies, and financial inducements such as tax relief.  

Unlike the states’ efforts, the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) track record for cleaning up hazardous industrial sites—required under the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as “Superfund”—has been dismal.  The program, instead of inducing rapid cleanups, has triggered lengthy and costly legal battles over who is responsible for the contamination and how clean is clean. 

Many of the problems of Superfund extend to the states’ cleanup of brownfields.  Despite the states’ tremendous successes in restoring many sites, they nonetheless are severely impeded by federal policies that prevent them from: ensuring liability protection for innocent parties, an essential component to reduce risk; developing their own rules for remediation; and cleaning up sites free from the threat of “environmental justice” provisions.

Furthermore, the EPA’s brownfields pilot programs, intended to help the states by providing federal funds and training, also have failed to meet their overall goals and objectives.  Despite allocating hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, these programs have failed to show tangible benefits, such as job creation or new investment opportunities; or to properly assist in the cleanup of riskier, high-priority sites, such as those containing traces of asbestos, lead-based paint, or petroleum.  Even more controversial is the EPA’s failure to provide the appropriated $40 million in loans to the selected pilot communities under its Brownfields Cleanup Revolving Loan Fund program.

To date, Washington’s policies intended to help the states clean up brownfields have impaired efforts by giving the EPA ultimate reign and control.  The best help Washington can give the states is to simply get out of the way—repealing the laws and policies that prevent the rapid and effective recycling of the nation’s brownfields.