The ultimate recycling challenge


"Brownfields" is not a glad word, or in most vocabularies yet. But you will be hearing it more as a crucial effort to devise a brownfields policy for Maryland gathers force.

Few other issues create such an intersection for economic, environmental and social policy.

The health of the poor and minorities, the vitality of faded downtowns, the preservation of country landscapes -- all come together here.

Brownfields are vacant or underused industrial sites, where further use is hindered by environmental contamination, either real or perceived; or obscured by debate over "how clean is clean enough?" and, "how much risk is acceptable?"

The alternative to reusing brownfields is for economic development to continue spreading across "greenfields", outlying regions of forest, wetland and farmland whose preservation is important to Chesapeake Bay and to agriculture.

In essence, brownfields are the ultimate recycling challenge, along with making the residential portions of existing cities and towns once again magnets for a growing population.

This is the often-overlooked flip side, the necessary complement, to checking sprawl development in the countryside -- not "no-growth"; rather, repatterning growth into areas already paved and plumbed and wired for intense development.

While most brownfield acres are in the old industrial centers of the Baltimore area, others are amply spread throughout the state -- few parts of Maryland are exempt.

In the Baltimore area "the magnitude of the brownfields problem would be hard to exaggerate," begins a briefing paper prepared in February by the city's Department of Planning.

Of about a square mile (some 600 acres) of vacant city industrial sites surveyed, more than half face cleanup obstacles, the planners said, adding: "Full testing . . . would undoubtedly show thousands of acres of contaminated land, much of which will some day become abandoned brownfields unless public policy is changed."

Of particular urgency to the city is the high potential for brownfields within areas slated for fast-track renewal under Baltimore's recent, $100 million empowerment zone grant. Part of that zone, for example, is in Fairfield, with some 1,200 industrial acres, both active and abandoned, and about 400 residences.

The heart of the problem is that the Environmental Protection Agency's 15-year-old "Superfund" toxic waste cleanup law has unintentionally become a barrier to urban redevelopment, says Lydia Duff, a lawyer with Miles and Stockbridge.

The law currently holds owners or prospective purchasers of contaminated sites liable for cleanup costs even if they did not do the polluting.

Standards for how much cleanup is acceptable are vague and costs can be wildly unpredictable.

"People have been buying and selling property with defects for millenia; but the problem with environmental defects is we can't quantify the risk," says Ms. Duff, who represents banks and property investors.

"Right now, when they look at a brownfield . . . real or potential, they can't say whether [cleanup] will take six months or 10 years, or how much it will cost.

"Unless the states and EPA agree on changes in the current situation, it's just very risky," she says.

Although perhaps the toughest parts lie ahead, substantial change has begun. EPA chief Carol Browner announced last January that 25,000 of the nation's 38,000 identified Superfund sites were being removed from the list immediately.

That does not mean these less-worrisome sites won't need some cleanup, or at least further analysis, but it was meant to counter a stigma that Browner likened to "a bad credit rating that never goes away."

Superfund sites, at any rate, are just the tip of the iceberg. A survey by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) estimates between 130,000 and 425,000 industrial sites, nationwide, may need some cleanup.

To that end, several states and cities, including Ohio, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Chicago, already have developed brownfields policies. Ohio's Cuyahoga County, offers a covenant from the state "not to sue" a company that volunteers to clean up a contaminated site.

Such limits to potential liability, combined with low-interest loans and tax abatements, are part of an Ohio strategy to renew older areas while simultaneously preserving greenspaces around them.

Maryland, which has no brownfields policy, is one of several places that received EPA grants of $200,000 this year for pilot programs to develop strategies.

More than 220 people showed up at a May symposium held by Baltimore and the fledgling Brownfields Work Group.

The work group's membership illustrates the scope of the challenge. It included representatives from industry, banks, environmental groups, urban and minority organizations, academia, business and government.

Ms. Duff, a member of the work group, says at this stage, "everyone can still be in agreement." The tough issues will come with setting specific standards and criteria for how much cleanup is enough, and how much risk is acceptable.

In other places, questions of discrimination have been raised over setting more lax standards for contamination in inner cities than for suburban areas; and environmentalists have sometimes preferred keeping a contaminated site in limbo to proceeding with reuse in the face of imperfect scientific knowledge about the risks to health.

These are valid issues, and they will be contentious. Also, as Ms. Duff points out, even if all obstacles to reusing brownfields are resolved, there will remain a number of factors making greenfield development still more attractive. No magic solution, in other words; but still a solution well worth pursuing on several counts.

First, anything that forms effective coalitions of environmental, urban and economic interests is healthy. Second, the status quo means a continued loss of jobs and hope for the very areas that should be accommodating the bulk of the bay region's continued population growth. Third, as Ms. Duff notes, we need to look harder at the overall quality of life in urban areas -- what else might be done with the very considerable sums of money required to take contaminated industrial sites from pretty clean to very clean.

This is touchy because it is always possible that today's "clean enough" will turn out to be tomorrow's "significant risk of cancer."

But neither can we demand to spend tens and hundreds of millions for marginally lower toxic risks without thinking what that money might do if put to jobs, education, Chesapeake Bay research or other areas.

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