When Al Barry looks at the charred, rusting shell of an old foundry at Clipper Industrial Park, he sees a future sound stage for film and television production. Other historic mills nearby in the Jones Falls Valley have been rehabilitated to profitable use, returning jobs and life to rundown neighborhoods.
"Maryland needs something like this," says Barry, a development consultant for the park's owner. Though damaged by a fire five years ago, the 17-acre Hampden complex draws film crews seeking a picturesque backdrop.
But the park's development potential is clouded by unanswered questions about whether the property is contaminated with toxic pollutants.
An Atlanta firm walked away from the Clipper site, Barry says, because it could not get assurance that the property was clean. The owner, William Polloway, says he can't afford to spend the $20,000 to $50,000 it would take to check for lingering pollution from previous owners, much less clean up anything that might be found.
With the Clipper park situation in mind, state and city economic development officials are seeking legislation in Annapolis that would liberalize Maryland's program to revitalize "brownfields."
Brownfields are properties such as former factories, warehouses and other commercial buildings that have been abandoned and fenced off out of fear that they are contaminated.
"These sites, if reclaimed, would be ideal locations for today's cutting-edge businesses," Richard C. "Mike" Lewin, state economic development secretary, told a House committee last week.
Environmentalists, however, are supporting a competing bill that would bar the use of taxpayer money to rehabilitate properties unless the businesses responsible for the contamination are defunct.
"There are folks that have money that ought to be doing cleanups," says Terry Harris of the Cleanup Coalition, a group of city community activists.
After a slow start, businesses are starting to take advantage of the state's 3-year-old brownfields law. The Maryland Department of the Environment has received 53 applications to clean up mildly contaminated former industrial and commercial tracts.
The Department of Business and Economic Development has at least tentatively pledged $1.15 million of the $1.3 million in funds it has to help businesses conduct pollution surveys and do cleanups.
But economic development officials contend that the program has not lived up to its promise -- that many more properties could be cleaned up and restored to productive use if the law could be made more flexible.
Baltimore officials, for instance, say they have identified more than 1,000 acres of brownfields within the city.
A bill submitted by Lewin's department would enable "innocent" property owners -- those who did nothing to contaminate the site -- to get state grants to pay for environmental assessments.
Under current law, a property owner first would have to spend $6,000 to submit a cleanup application to the environment department, then another $20,000 to $50,000 looking for evidence of contamination before qualifying for state aid.
The administration bill also would allow the state to help owners of polluted property clean it up. That provision upsets community and environmental activists, who say they fear that might encourage polluters to "launder" the sites by selling them to someone else.
Environmentalists are backing a bill by Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who helped craft the brownfields law.
His proposal would bar state aid for cleanups if any viable business or person responsible for contaminating the site can be found.
"If they're out of business, then it makes sense to use state resources to clean it up," Frosh says. "But I'd rather let polluters pay to clean it up."
Lewin contends that Frosh's bill would be more restrictive than current law and would make it harder, not easier, to get pollution cleaned up.
City development officials have identified seven tracts in Baltimore -- including Clipper Industrial Park -- that could qualify for at least some state funds if Lewin's bill passes. They worry, however, that the disputes between business interests and environmentalists could doom any legislation this year.
"We've got questions with no good answers," says M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp.
The quasi-public agency has hammered out two brownfields deals in recent weeks, clearing the way for redevelopment of the old Port Liberty shipyard in Fairfield and the old Esskay plant in East Baltimore.
"We were all scared about getting involved in property that had a history of pollution," Phillip Richie, a vice president for Hobelman Port Services, told lawmakers.
The company, which plans to use 20 acres at Port Liberty for storing cars being shipped through the port, will seal the lead-laced soil by paving it, a remedy that will cost $2.4 million.
The business will bring 50 jobs to southern Baltimore, and a payroll of $3 million.
Though ultimately successful, that deal was needlessly complicated, Lewin said, requiring officials to locate a buyer for the property before cleanup and redevelopment could proceed.
"Unless we face reality and break away from the view held by some activists that we must punish the polluters ... there will be no cleanups in the state and we'll continue to punish the residents," Lewin warned.
The Cleanup Coalition's Harris, who lives near a former metal plating factor in the Pigtown area, says he and his neighbors favor redeveloping brownfields. But he said they also want to be sure that the work is done safely.
Frosh says he hopes to avoid a repeat of the legislative deadlock that delayed passage of the original brownfields law.
"The one thing we both agree on is the need for some more enforcement," he said. "Right now, we've got a few carrots and no stick" to get owners of contaminated industrial land to clean it up.
Meanwhile, at Clipper Park, Barry noted that there is no evidence the tract is contaminated. But the owner is unwilling to risk doing a pollution survey for fear that he could be forced by the government to clean up any problem found. Even if the rules for helping brownfields owners are liberalized, the state may not be able to help that many of them.
With the incentive fund almost depleted, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has proposed to add another $800,000 next year.
Other states, which have spent tens of millions of dollars on cleanups, have more successful records revitalizing old industrial sites.
Lewin noted that Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Michigan are "much more pro-active in buying sites no matter who owns them. We're not there yet."