More cleanup of sites possible; State, advocates agree on expansion of 'brownfields' law


Maryland officials and environmentalists have reached agreement on liberalizing the state "brownfields" law so that more old factories and warehouse sites can be redeveloped.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, one of the General Assembly's leading environmental advocates, said yesterday that he would go along with a Glendening administration proposal to provide state funds for landowners to check out possible contamination of their property.

In return, the administration agreed to strengthen enforcement of laws requiring cleanup of polluted land, the Montgomery County Democrat said. "It looks as though we're coming together," said Richard C. Mike Lewin, state economic development secretary.

Fifty-three old industrial sites have applied to join the state's voluntary cleanup program, but economic development officials contend that there are many more that could be revitalized if curbs were dropped in the 3-year-old law on who can receive state funding for pollution studies and remediation.

Economic development officials had introduced legislation in the House of Delegates that would permit the use of state funds to check for pollution and cleanup. The bill cleared the House Environmental Matters Committee on Friday, but it was opposed by environmentalists, who contend that polluters, rather than taxpayers, should pay.

Frosh has introduced a more restrictive "brownfields" bill, which is due for a hearing today in the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee. It would bar aid for landowners unless those responsible for the contamination are broke or cannot be found. The senator said he would amend his bill to reflect the compromise reached after negotiations with state economic and environmental officials.

"I'm not crazy about giving the money to polluters," he said, "but my hope is it will ... move a lot of sites -- closer to redevelopment."

He stressed that the deal hinges on the state hiring another assistant attorney general to pursue polluters. He said Minnesota collected the bulk of the $39 million it spent on brownfields cleanups in 1997 from companies responsible for contaminating industrial sites.

Under the compromise, any property owner who gets state funds to look for contamination -- studies usually cost $20,000 to $50,000 -- would have to go ahead with cleanup within 12 months or repay the money. The owner could not be compelled to share the site study with the state -- a provision that should ease business fears of being forced into a costly cleanup.

The compromise also could pave the way for the state to help landowners with cleanups, Lewin said. If the study determines the owner did not foul the site and did not know it was contaminated at acquisition, the owner could be eligible for state help, Lewin said. Frosh said landowners have that option under the law, but the legislation would reinforce it.

If landowners take advantage of the likely changes in the brownfields law, Lewin said redevelopment might be limited by a lack of funds. With only $150,000 left uncommitted from the program's original $1.3 million, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has asked for $800,000 in next year's budget.

"It's not enough," Lewin said. "We will ask the governor to consider doing more."

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