Brownfields: Loosening the reins on redevelopment funds

One of the most important challenges facing cities today is cleaning up and revitalizing abandoned industrial and commercial sites that were the engines of America's economic greatness. Working in partnership with communities, we can transform brownfields into generators of new jobs and new prosperity in our future.
—Andrew Cuomo, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

The U.S. government is giving high priority to the redevelopment of brownfields — idled or underutilized industrial or commercial facilities stigmatized by real or perceived environmental contamination. The magnitude of the problem is huge; the U.S. General Accounting Office estimates that approximately 450,000 brownfields sites exist throughout our nation. Yet, the removal of stubborn contaminants from the sites' soil and groundwater is not the toughest challenge these real estate pariahs face. Undoubtedly, the greatest obstacle is securing funding for their cleanup and redevelopment.

In an effort to jumpstart the financing of brownfield redevelopment projects, in 1997 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created the Brownfields Cleanup Revolving Loan Fund program (BCRLF). Through capitalization grants from EPA, the BCRLF pilots are intended to enable communities to fund the cleanup and sustainable reuse of brownfields. In fiscal year 1997, EPA used $10 million of its brownfields budget for the award of BCLRF pilots.

In an attempt to review the progress of the program, the U.S. House Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation conducted a hearing on Nov. 4, 1999. At the time of the hearing, EPA reported that only one recipient — Stamford, Conn. — had completed a brownfield loan transaction.

At the hearing, Timothy Fields, Jr., assistant administrator of EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, told the panel that the BCRLF program's performance has been "unimpressive" to date. He testified that many of the pilots have been delayed due to the newness of the program and personnel turnover. According to Fields, prior to making a loan, communities must develop the infrastructure necessary to ensure that loans will be in compliance with the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as Superfund, the National Contingency Plan and cross-cutting federal authorities.

Darsi Foss, brownfields section chief in Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources, testified that her agency decided not to participate in the program because of its rigid guidelines. Yet, Foss said, "with some further flexibility on how EPA can use this money, we believe this could be a very attractive program." She suggested that the program could be improved by allowing a person or company receiving a loan to conduct the site cleanup in accordance with state voluntary cleanup programs, rather than federal programs.

In 1999, members of Congress introduced several pieces of legislation intended to streamline the cumbersome brownfields loan process. One such bill strongly supported by the Clinton administration was H.R. 1750, introduced last year by Reps. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.). The bill was designed to remove some of the obstacles in the Superfund program that would impact brownfield redevelopment. Among these were liability protections for potential buyers of brownfield sites and innocent landowners. However, H.R. 1750 was not reported out of the Commerce Committee during the 1999 session.

According to Brenda Pillars, chief of staff of Rep. Towns' office, elements of H.R. 1750 could resurface early this year as a partial compromise in a revised version of another brownfields-related bill, H.R. 2580. Rep. Jim Greenwood (R- Pa.) introduced H.R. 2580 in May 1999, which was approved by the House Commerce Committee in October 1999. The bill contains provisions for both brownfields redevelopment and specific Superfund reforms. During the fall of 1999, the Clinton administration opposed H.R. 2580 on the grounds that it would result in a Superfund program that would not adequately protect the environment.

H.R. 2580 was not heard by the end of 1999, but it is now ready to be taken to the floor during the second session of the 106th Congress that began this January. According to Niko Yen, press secretary for Rep. Greenwood, House Speaker Denny Hastert (R-Ill.) has indicated that he wants to give priority to H.R. 2580. At press time, no definite date had been set when it will be taken up for consideration. The focus of H.R. 2580 appears to be shifting from a broader Superfund reform bill to a narrower brownfields funding package, Pillars said in December.

For more information about H.R. 2580 and other proposed brownfields legislation pending before the U.S. House of Representatives, check out www.house.gov. To find out about EPA's brownfields programs, visit www.epa.gov/brownfields.

Efforts need to go forward to make this funding program more effective. Hopefully, this year the members of Congress can work together creatively to pass a brownfield redevelopment program that helps to put these blighted sites back into productive use quickly.

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This article appeared in the February 2000 issue of Environmental Protection magazine, Vol. 11, No. 2, p. 6.

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2000 issue of Environmental Protection.

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