The Brownfield Challenge

Cities across America, from New York to San Francisco and Atlanta to Chicago are seeking to revitalize downtown areas and attract jobs and business. At the same time communities are finding it difficult to limit urban sprawl in the face of increasing demand for new housing and commercial development. Brownfield sites provide a tremendous opportunity for cities, real estate developers and industries to redevelop underused properties and ease the burden on scarce land resources.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines brownfields as "Abandoned, idled, or under-used industrial and commercial facilities where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination." Before the promise of redevelopment can be realized, these properties require an assessment of potential environmental contamination and may need to be cleaned up if found to be impacted. This article discusses three cases in northern California that illustrate some of the issues involved in brownfields cleanup:

  • Strategies and technology for rapid assessment and cleanup;
  • Risk assessment and cleanup goals appropriate to intended land use; and
  • Hurdles to redevelopment.
  • In one case, a rapid site assessment demonstrated that a brownfield site was clean, clearing the way for redevelopment as a church. In the second case, realistic, risk-based, site-specific cleanup goals at an industrial site allowed cleanup to be completed in a reasonable time frame, and the site is now slated for commercial redevelopment. In the third case, rapid assessment was conducted at a former dry cleaning facility using "direct push" technology and the data used to estimate the total volume of impacted soil and develop quick cleanup cost estimates for a potential buyer.

    The choice of a cleanup level involves a trade-off between cost and risk reduction.

    Criteria for Risk-Based Cleanups

    Before discussing the cases, the concept of risk-based cleanup requires some explanation. It is recognized that contaminated sites vary considerably in their proposed land use, geology, hydrogeology and the type of chemical contaminants that may be present. Depending on a combination of factors, they may pose highly variable site-specific risks or hazards to human health and the environment. Thus, a one-size-fits-all solution (technology or cleanup level) may not be appropriate for all sites. Rather the corrective action should be tailored to site-specific conditions and risks. A properly conducted risk assessment can be used to develop site-specific target-levels (SSTLs) for soil and groundwater. Reducing site chemical concentrations diminishes risk but increases cost. The choice of a cleanup level involves a trade-off between cost and risk reduction. Risk-based cleanup can help achieve the appropriate level of risk reduction without incurring excessive costs.

    Brownfield Redeveloped as a Church

    In order to expand its facilities, a community church wanted to acquire a 3.7-acre brownfield property from the local redevelopment agency. The property had the reputation of having been used as an auto yard, and the client was concerned that site soils may be contaminated with lead, chromium and other metals. A Phase I environmental site assessment (ESA) for the property was first performed, including site reconnaissance and review of records -- regulatory agency database records, aerial photographs, 50-year Chain-of-title and fire insurance (Sanborn) maps. The Phase I ESA indicated that the site had been used primarily as a warehouse for construction materials, such as gravel, and there was no evidence at all of use as an auto yard.

    Research conducted during the Phase I ESA indicated that there could be environmental concerns from potential migration of offsite groundwater and possible releases of petroleum hydrocarbons to soil and groundwater from a sump that could have been used for containing truck wash water. A sampling plan was then formulated to better assess whether site soils or groundwater were impacted by regulated chemicals-of- concern (COC). Conducted next was a rapid Phase II investigation performing seven soil borings and collecting soil and groundwater samples in one day using "direct push" technology. The soil and groundwater sampling results did not detect any COCs in site soils or groundwater. As a result of the Phase I ESA and Phase II investigations, the client was able to complete the property transfer to develop the property as intended. In this case the perception that the site was contaminated turned out to be incorrect. Happily, as this case shows, some brownfield sites will not require any cleanup.

    Remediation And Planned Commercial Redevelopment of an Industrial Site

    This approximately four-acre site operated as an industrial gases manufacturing and gas-bottling facility for over 80 years. The property owner initiated site investigations following the removal of some underground fuel tanks. Soil and groundwater were impacted by petroleum hydrocarbons from a fuel tank leak, as well as acetone from manufacturing operations. Groundwater and soil remediation began in 1995 using pump-and-treat and soil vapor extraction systems respectively. The initial cleanup levels mandated by local and state agency regulations were stringent and bore no relationship to the intended site uses or actual risks. Risk-based cleanup goals (SSTLs) for this specific site were established in 1996 using Risk-Based Corrective Action (RBCA) guidelines developed by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM, 1995). The SSTLs were based on the intended use of the facility as a commercial/industrial site.

    After removing an estimated 37,000 pounds of acetone and 141 pounds of gasoline (including 12 pounds of benzene) in the dissolved phase, active remediation was discontinued in 1998. The groundwater plume had been reduced and SSTLs achieved in all but one monitoring location. Refining the risk assessment resulted in a higher allowable groundwater benzene concentration.

    Over the next year, groundwater monitoring was conducted, along with evaluation of the site-specific capacity for natural attenuation and demonstration of plume stability through an analysis of plume movement and spreading. However, one well persistently detected groundwater concentrations of benzene higher than the SSTL. A focused investigation demonstrated the presence of some localized contamination or a "hot spot" surrounding this well. Approximately 200 yards of these "hot spot" soils were excavated and about 15,000 gallons of groundwater were pumped from the excavation, until SSTLs for the site were achieved. The soils required disposal at a Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) permitted out-of-state facility. The groundwater was treated using the onsite activated carbon treatment system and discharged to the sanitary sewer.

    The site has been acquired by a developer and will likely be redeveloped as an office complex. Conditions of closure will include a deed restriction -- an agreement limiting the type of redevelopment and requiring certain notifications and disclosures upon sale of the property. In addition to state-of-the-art technology, the key to successful, timely cleanup was the regulatory agency's willingness to consider risk-based, cleanup goals.

    Rapid Site Assessment at a Former Dry Cleaning Facility

    A small retail business was interested in acquiring a former dry cleaning facility for expanding its operations. At this downtown location, tetrachloroethylene, or perchloroethylene (PCE), a common dry cleaning solvent, had been detected beneath the foundation of a dry cleaning machine.

    In addition to state-of-the art technology, the key to successful, timely cleanup was the regulatory agency's willingness to consider risk-based cleanup goals.

    A site investigation was conducted to better evaluate the presence and extent of halogenated volatile organic compounds (HVOCs) beneath the site. The investigation was conducted entirely within a single story building with only a 10-foot high roll up door for access. In addition, boreholes had to pass through as many as three layers of four to six-inch thick reinforced concrete. Seven boreholes up to 30 feet deep were installed with a limited access rig in one day and logged. Next the boring data were analyzed to map the site stratigraphy, determine the groundwater flow direction and define the extent of HVOCs including PCE, trichloroethylene (TCE) and cis -1,2 dichloroethylene (cis-1,2 DCE) in soil and groundwater. Based on the findings, and estimated soil volumes impacted, further investigations and risk assessments were recommended. Potential cleanup costs were then estimated under various scenarios. In this case, the buyer decided not to acquire the site because of the cost of cleanup and uncertainty associated with obtaining environmental closure.


    The biggest challenge in developing brownfields likely is adequate liability protection for prospective landowners, developers and remedial action contractors (RAC). Regulatory tools, such as covenants not to sue, currently do not provide comprehensive liability protection after a cleanup has been completed. A number of bills are being considered to remedy this situation. For example, The Brownfields Reform and Small Business Liability Relief Act (HR 2869), introduced by Representative Paul Gillmor (R-Ohio), recently passed both the House and the Senate and was signed by President Bush on January 11, 2002, (the bill status and text is available at This bi-partisan legislation provides liability protection under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) (also known as Superfund) and RCRA for innocent landowners, prospective developers and contiguous property owners.

    Another challenge is properly funding brownfield development. President Bush announced in January that his fiscal year (FY) 2003 budget will double the funds available through EPA in FY 2002 -- from $98 million to $200 million -- to help states and communities around the country clean up and revitalize brownfield sites.

    The president's FY 2003 budget also includes $25 million in funding for urban redevelopment and brownfield cleanup through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

    Furthermore, the president's budget proposes to permanently extend the Brownfields Tax Incentive, which encourages the redevelopment of brownfields. According to government estimates, the $300 million annual investment in the Brownfields Tax Incentive will leverage approximately $3.4 billion in private investment and return 8,000 brownfields to productive use.

    A system of regulatory tools, tax incentives and funding mechanisms is evolving that will reduce RAC and landowner liability and provide economic incentives for redevelopment. Readily available site assessment and remediation technology, combined with evolving regulatory tools and incentives, is making redevelopment of brownfields a reality.


    This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2002 issue of Environmental Protection.

    About the Author

    Pat Delamater serves as Trinity Consultants' Vice President of Operations. He earned his BS in Meteorology from Texas A&M University.

    Featured Webinar