Finding Your Brownfield Of Dreams

The Brownfields Initiative, formally known as the Brownfields Economic Redevelopment Program, has spurred a storm of activity in redeveloping contaminated properties, and almost has become an industry of its own.

When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., first conceived and publicized the initiative in 1995, the goal was to revitalize U.S. cities and towns by cleaning up and redeveloping Brownfields. The EPA also wanted to address the environmental and socioeconomic issues related to these contaminated sites.

Since 1995, about 1,000 sites nationwide have been cleaned up. Industry experts estimate there are 450,000 to 650,000 sites that still need attention.

More than 40 states and hundreds of counties and cities have complemented the federal initiative with more regulatory flexibility and economic incentives. These incentives, in turn, have leveraged considerable private-sector interest and investment.

Brownfields typically are commercial, industrial or institutional properties with actual or perceived contamination and a realistic potential for redevelopment. A lot of good information about the environmental restoration and economic reuse of Brownfields is available through government, corporate and academic resources.

However, many potential investors, developers and Brownfields site end-users still are unsure how to synthesize and use this information. And waste haulers have an even more difficult time understanding the significance of Brownfields to their bottom lines.

These groups wonder how to determine, within a quantifiable margin of error, whether a Brownfields project can be turned into an economic and real estate success. In other words, what makes a good Brownfields project and how do you weigh the variables?

The answer may be complicated. Obviously, some pieces of real estate never are a bargain, regardless of the price or environmental condition. But the economic strength of a Brownfields project largely will be affected by site cleanup and reuse limitations.

Brownfields' Potential

Any issue pertaining to a Brownfields site, whether it be surrounding infrastructure, environmental conditions, demographic profiles, etc., is weighed in terms of how it affects economic redevelopment potential. This is common with any piece of real estate.

The difference in Brownfields is that property values frequently do not account for limitations associated with cleanup costs. In some cases, basic site characteristics location, adjacent properties, existing infrastructure, etc. may provide sufficient information so that a potential buyer will invest in initial transaction and due diligence expenses. But elsewhere, environmental restoration itself may be viewed as a catalyst for social benefits such as community health, civic safety, etc., imparting more subtle economic benefits. In either case, economic returns for both the site developer and the waste hauler can be enormous because of the debris that must be removed and the revitalization project's effects on surrounding property values.

One way to understand the significance of Brownfield sites is to place them in essential site types. There are seven major categories: old utility sites; former textile mills; old institutional, commercial, or residential complexes (former schools, prisons, stores, office buildings, tenements, etc.); old petrochemical sites; former manufacturing properties; closed landfills; and old government facilities. Each Brownfields type has relevance to waste haulers.

Old Utility Sites

These sites include former coal gasification or manufactured gas plant (MGP) sites, wherein gas was produced via the destructive distillation of coal. From approximately the 1850s to the early 1950s, MGPs were a primary source of energy for lighting and heating. They also served, through the byproducts of the gas manufacturing process, as producers of tars, oils, and various industrial product feedstocks. At the peak of the industry in the 1920s and 1930s, more than 10,000 MGPs were in operation throughout North America and Europe.

In many situations, structure demolition and removal already has taken place. However, the opportunities for waste haulers on MGP sites is significant when the structures have remained.

While many former MGPs were demolished long before the advent of environmental regulation, many old power plants still are structurally intact. A major step in preparing these sites for redevelopment therefore pertains to building decontamination, demolition, and removal.

During these activities at one such site, for example, more than 15,000 tons of metal material were recycled, and 40,000 tons of building debris were recycled. Recycling helps to offset the remediation costs in preparing these sites for redevelopment and offers considerable opportunities for waste haulers: asbestos from roofing and pipe lagging; lead paint from gas holder structures; coal tar residuals non-aqueous phase liquids (NAPLs), monocyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (MAHs), polycylic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) cyanide composites from purifier waste; structural, chemical, and petroleum products and wastes; and mercury-containing equipment. Asphalt, earth, electrical fixtures, masonry, rubble, metal, and plastics also can be recycled to help offset remediation costs. MGP residuals can be used for recycling or co-burning processes.

Former Textile Mills

Similar to old utility sites, former textile mills once were a fairly common feature among municipal landscapes, especially along the eastern coast of the United States. Sometimes the buildings are architecturally significant, constructed of customized brick or stone cut from adjacent riverbeds. On some projects, the structures have been renovated to accentuate the historic look and feel of the old buildings while providing a roomy yet energy-efficient space for various reuse operations. In other cases, where structures are simply too obsolete (or too dilapidated to restore), building demolition is the only feasible way to prepare some of these sites for futures uses.

The opportunities for waste haulers on demolition projects is significant because these structures are often massive in size and contain enormous amounts of brick or cut granite. They also often contain oak or chestnut wooden beams, and large amounts of metal.

Old Institutional, Residential or Commercial Properties.

These Brownfields are more of a mixed bag than most of the other categories. The wide range of sites in this category includes former or obsolete structures such as: hospitals; research and educational institutions; retail operations such as pharmaceutical, lumber, and hardware stores; office buildings; and old residential tenement buildings. While many examples in this site category do not have the potential economic leverage or power of old utility or textile mill sites, their restoration and reuse often fosters increased value throughout the communities where they are located.

From both an environmental and waste removal perspectives, the challenges and opportunities from these sites vary widely.

Old hospital sites may contain formaldehyde, adionuclides, photographic chemicals, solvents, mercury, ethylene oxide and chemotherapy chemicals. Pharmaceutical stores may contain lead, various organic chemicals and organic solvents. Educational and other institutions typically contain inorganic acids, organic solvents, metals and metal dust, photographic waste, waste oil, paint, heavy metals, and pesticides. Lumberyards and hardware stores often contain creosote, pentachlorophenol, arsenic chromium, copper, PCBs, PAHs, beryllium, and dioxin. Asbestos, lead-based paint, and PAHs often are identified in office building and residential tenement sites. Recycling waste products frequently is used to help offset redevelopment costs.

Old Petrochemical Sites

This category pertains chiefly to very large parcels of land often owned by or associated with major national and multinational corporations. There are approximately 50,000 contaminated sites in the United States not including old gas stations or underground storage tank (UST) sites with total estimated cleanup costs in excess of $100 billion, according to Arthur D. Little consultants. Large old petrochemical sites generally fit into this fiscal realm.

Wastes, which may have to be removed and treated to prepare these sites for reuse, include petroleum hydrocarbons, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene (BTEX), fuels, oils, and gases.

Former Manufacturing Properties

Although some of the sites in this category fall within the fiscal realm of old petrochemical sites, the majority of old manufacturing properties leads to more manageable cleanup opportunities. These properties may have been one of the following types of manufacturing operations: cosmetics; glass; herbicide; leather; machine shops or metal fabrication; munitions; paint/ink; pesticide; photographic materials; plastics; scrap metal; smelter; or semiconductors. This group of sites are prominent throughout the Northeast and Midwest. The types of wastes that may need to be removed from these sites vary but typically include masonry, rubble, glass, plastics, metals, petroleum hydrocarbons, benzene, fuels, oils and gases.

Closed Landfills

Although it's arguable, closed, idle or abandoned landfills qualify as Brownfields. They once served a societal purpose, and some were sources of revenue.

For example, the recycling of metals disposed at these sites once contributed to municipal or private revenue. Sometimes, the land makes them potentially valuable if they could be reused. And, decaying trash releases methane gas, which may be collected and used.

Old Government Facilities

Although properties in this category may, in many instances, fit into one of the other six types, it is identified separately because of the management needed for their cleanup, redevelopment and reuse.

Similar to private industrial or commercial operations, government also ceases operations, leaving properties unused. Former post offices, landfills, fire departments and military bases are just a few examples of federal, state or municipal government facilities that can inherit or have characteristics commonly associated with other Brownfields categories.

In some cases, government agencies may reuse their Brownfields sites or hand them over to other government organizations. In other situations related to federal or state agencies, for example the federal government may be obligated to clean up the properties before giving them to a municipality. The waste management issues associated with these government-owned sites span all those discussed with the previous six categories.

An independent management consultant, Jerry Ackerman provides strategic planning and advisory services on Brownfields revitalization projects for the public and private sector. E-mail: [email protected] .