THE PROBLEM of brownfields, those abandoned but polluted sites that beg for recycling to productive use, affects both town and country. Some 400 such vacant factories, dumps and housing projects are scattered throughout Maryland. They are less toxic than sites on the federal Superfund priority list. But these man-made wastelands sit with little hope of cleanup because of the potential legal liability of redevelopers.
A state task force on redevelopment of brownfields is to deliver its report next month.Its recommendations will shape discussions of government action to encourage reuse of these blighted vacant sites while pushing voluntary cleanup of environmental hazards.
Recycling urban polluted sites to create jobs and taxes, while retarding the leapfrog sprawl of development (and pollution) into suburban-rural areas offers benefits for all.
Brownfields programs are no panacea for urban redevelopment. Land costs, taxes, crime, transportation and other factors influence private development decisions. But effective standards to promote reuse can help.
While panel members wrangle over final report drafts, there are basic elements that need to be incorporated in a Maryland brownfields policy. They include:
* Flexibility in cleanup standards to match future land use, while not abandoning realistic protection of human health and environment.
* Treating underground water pollution that can affect other areas, not just fencing off or treating the surface contamination.
* Liability assurance that allows a land purchaser to proceed with redevelopment, knowing what his "good faith" cleanup costs and future legal exposure will be. But no protection for polluters of the property.
* Avoiding taxpayer responsibility for cleanup of properties, while providing public incentives to stimulate private brownfields recovery efforts, especially in low-income, high-unemployment areas such as Baltimore's Fairfield.
* Containing administrative-legal costs for cleanup and development of sites.
* State oversight of site assessments and of cleanup, with a one-stop coordinator.
Difficult questions must be resolved at each potential site: What is the risk? What are acceptable remedies? What is the cost? That's why sound state policy, with standards to encourage brownfields recovery, is needed.