ALBANY, N.Y. -- Environmental activist Aaron Maier surveyed the abandoned industrial plant that blights his poor neighborhood here on the banks of the Hudson River. The lot, vacant but for an abandoned factory building, was overrun by weeds, and the soil was soaked with toxic chemicals.
A few years ago, he would have called for the standard environmentalist's prescription: Clean up the property thoroughly, no matter what the cost to business or government. But today, Maier is convinced that that approach has frightened off potential developers and left old industrial tracts like the one here orphaned. He believes it would be easier to attract a developer if the law didn't require that the land be cleaned to a pristine condition, but rather just enough for another industrial plant.
His conversion may sound like heresy to some environmentalists, but it is easy enough to explain. Like many civic leaders in poor, largely minority communities across the country, Maier has concluded that decades of aggressive environmental policy have failed to solve pollution problems and have contributed to economic woes.
So Maier, who is black, and some other minority leaders from poor urban communities have found themselves in an unexpected alliance with big business as part of a national push by business interests to ease the cleanup standards for pollution-blighted properties commonly referred to as brownfields.
This new approach has created something of a crisis for environmentalists. For two decades, they have courted black and Hispanic leaders under the banner of "environmental justice," a movement rooted in the notion that poor communities are burdened with an unfair share of polluted properties.
But many minority leaders are now saying that while they are still committed to safeguarding the environment, that objective should not be achieved at the expense of economic opportunities for poor urban neighborhoods. They point out that in many poor neighborhoods, brownfields are neither cleaned up nor put to productive use.
"Our goals should be to promote economic development in these communities while protecting the environment," said Vernice Miller Travis, a former resident of New York City's Harlem who used to head the Environmental Justice Initiative at the Environmental Resources Defense Council. "Those two concepts are not diametrically opposed. But it requires some different thinking than what we are used to."
Nationwide, there are about 450,000 brownfields with varying levels of contamination, according to private and public estimates. Roughly three dozen states, including New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts, have adopted new regulations to expedite the cleanup of such sites as long as they are not deemed so dangerous that they require extensive work under either state or federal Superfund programs.
But strict cleanup laws adopted during the 1980s in the wake of Love Canal still exist in other states, including New York and California. Environmentalists have argued that abandoned industrial properties should be cleaned to a relatively high standard, and that the current owners should pay for the cleanup, even if they did not cause the pollution.
But business leaders counter that a high cleanup standard is unnecessary in many cases, particularly when a brownfield will be used for a factory and not for, say, a home or playground. More than that, though, they say that holding property owners responsible for cleanup costs has led many potential investors to shun brownfields and look elsewhere.
Ron Bruder is one of those investors. His company, the Brookhill Group, redevelops roughly 35 brownfields a year across the country, constructing shopping malls, office buildings and the like. But he has avoided states like New York, where, he says, environmental laws discourage brownfield use. "We'd love to do something in New York," he said. But the economics and the legislation don't work."
The New York City Partnership has been pushing to relax the cleanup standards in New York. "If you set up cleanup standards that are unachievable, you end up in a no-man's land, and that's not good for anybody," said Jody Kass, an environmental expert with the group.