Polluted land can still be the land of opportunity, according to a new breed of developers who are willing to perform limited cleanups.
Marginally toxic sites, or brown fields, don't need and consequently won't get Superfund-type management. As a result, land use planners and government officials are anxious to work with developers who are willing to gamble on reviving abandoned, polluted industrial areas.
Unfortunately, the most attractive feature of these sites - the cheap price - signals the problem that banks usually won't lend money to develop the properties. Meantime, formidable government regulations make it time-consuming and expensive to perform cleanups.
Nevertheless, some projects are underway. A Danish builder paid $10 million for a former landfill site in Elizabeth, N.J., where he plans to build a 200-store factory outlet mall. His acquisition costs and cleanup expenses will be almost $200,000 an acre, which, he said, is less than what he would normally pay for uncontaminated property with nearby highway access.
Developers in Europe, where pristine sites are rare, often clean up generations of garbage and industrial residue before beginning projects. In 1990, Ikea USA Inc., a Swedish furniture and household goods chain, built a store on an abandoned landfill site near the New Jersey Turnpike. No American firm could get a loan to buy the site, said officials of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which formerly owned the site and paid for its extensive cleanup before offering the property for sale.
New Jersey is among several states that have loosened environmental cleanup standards for the sake of revitalizing local economics. If, next session, Congress passes the sweeping changes proposed in the Superfund law, polluted sites may become even more desirable for reuse.
The present Superfund law requires government and responsible parties to restore severely polluted land to a level compatible with housing, recreational areas and other uses that involve close contact with restored soil. Some federal, state and local officials believe that such standards are unreasonable if they effectively prohibit all redevelopment of abandoned, brown-field sites.
Next year, Congress may again consider revising the Superfund law to apply less stringent cleanup rules to sites that are intended for non-residential purposes such as factories, warehouses and commercial developments.
Congress may also consider changing the law to protect banks and other lenders that were willing to underwrite economic redevelopment of marginally toxic sites. These financial good Samaritans would be safeguarded against cleanup liability if they foreclosed on a developer of a polluted site.
Thus far, environmentalists have been upset with federal efforts to eliminate or dilute cleanup responsibilities under Superfund or state regulations. "Laxer cleanup standards for industrial users is simply a way to let polluters off the hook," said a spokesman for the New York Public Interest Research Group. "If polluters don't pay, taxpayers will," he added.
Another reason to stand firm on environmental standards, said the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), is because most brown sites tend to be concentrated in impoverished areas. "These sites are often next to residential areas that are occupied by people of color, and it is not going to be the government or industry that lives there in the future," said an NRDC representative.
An official nationwide list of brown-field sites does not exist. The Superfund program's National Priority List contains more than 1,200 sites, but does not include brown fields. However, urban planners say that areas where toxic sites are heavily concentrated also contain many brown-field sites.
Last August, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave a $200,000 grant to the city of Bridgeport, Conn., to identify brown-field sites, evaluate the contamination levels, and encourage redevelopment by the private sector. In 1993, Connecticut lawmakers authorized the state's Department of Environmental Protection to sell $25 million in bonds for a statewide cleanup of contaminated sites. The state's Urban Site Remediation Program is aimed at restoring urban land best-suited for economic development.
Lawmakers in New Jersey last year passed the Industrial Sites Recovery Act. The law provides grants and loans for cleanup, allows varying cleanup standards for residential, commercial and industrial uses and creates other incentives for brown-field development.
"The pendulum has swung too far in the direction of protection from theoretically harmful environmental effects," H. Claude Shostal told The New York Times. Shostal heads an organization that studies land use issues in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
"We have created enormous barriers to redevelopment that need to be lowered," he added.