I am a brownfield guy. I’m down with that – because a brownfield project should always end up with something better for everybody. Re-using property means re-using roads and other infrastructure, instead of building new. But there is a challenge. Sadly, everywhere people have been they’ve left some schmutz, as my grandmother would say. So, reusing land means getting good with it again. That’s been my job for a couple of decades, and I’ve been happy to do it. Put my kids through school.
There have been marked cycles of policy regarding the redevelopment of polluted plots – cycles that are influenced as much by politics as by our evolving science to understand the real threats. Our nadir came in the nineties when the fiercest CERCLA (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act aka Superfund) enforcement cases were coming out of the courts and (even in light of finding a so-called “safe haven” for lenders) no one wanted to buy or sell anything that might attract a claim of – OMG – hazardous materials. And there was a long list of what those were (except for petroleum – but that’s another story). Then the advocates came on strong, people like Charlie Bartsch and others who walked the halls of Washington. Still, history is a funny old thing and you can never predict how things will turn. The terrorist attack of 9/11 was, in the end, as much responsible for the dramatic evolution of national brownfield policy as anything.
When the twin towers fell we held our collective breath – and everything went into a freeze. The planes came out of the sky. Congress knew we had to do something to show we were not flat lining, and this required the conservatives and the progressives to find something – anything – they could agree to do. They agreed on brownfields. Our legislative shock after 9/11 was broken by the first legislation to be passed after the attack, the revision of CERCLA to accept the national desire to fix the dilemma that had created brownfields. It was passed by an almost unanimous Senate (been a while, huh?) It took effect on January 2, 2002.
Unfortunately, the legislation alone hasn’t solved the problem. Too many years of thinking that behind every polluted plot there was a guilty party – a Responsible Party – who should PAY! That has left us with policy artifacts that hinder progress. Owners can end up there (owning land that is schmutzed) for any one of a wide variety of reasons. Ergo – redeveloping brownfields continues to have challenges. Which brings me, in an embarrassingly discursive way, to the point of this brief observation.
The great state of California decided, a few years back, that it no longer needed the assistance of local funding to help support local redevelopment. Redevelopment Agencies were abolished, and municipal ability to support redevelopment was curtailed. I think that means that our tail was cut off – but no matter, it ended. Now brownfield projects have to meet internally sustainable pro-formas without much public subsidy or assistance. Finally, I get to the point.
With so little capital available to support the extra costs of assessment and remediation or mitigation of schmutz impacts, it is an embarrassing failure of leadership at all the state levels that has failed to implement regulatory reform to support brownfield redevelopment. California still treats every plot owner as a possible PRP (rhymes with “perp” aka potentially responsible party). It doesn’t matter which of the mind numbingly various state agencies one deals with, they are generally just not interested in making brownfield redevelopment smarter in California. Our governor, who has had experience with urban redevelopment, seems to think our state system is fine and in need of no further improvement. In this he is wrong. Our current system is suffering from regulatory entropy. We are at a point as low as any of the last three decades.
Ich bein ein brownfielder. It is my hope to more regularly contribute to observations about how modest re-evaluation of our brownfield regulatory system (ah, if only it really were one) can contribute to our physical and economic health. I look forward to sharing.
Photo Credit: Carlos Martinez – Urban Landscape – Dead field