PRO-TERRA Environmental Contracting Co.

Brownfield remediation - Urban revitalization requires local groups to learn to identify brownfield sites and understand the liability issues and environmental concerns.

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Courtesy of PRO-TERRA Environmental Contracting Co.

Brownfields are defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency as 'abandoned, idled, or under-used industrial and commercial facilities where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination.' Vacant industrial sites, gas stations, commercial buildings, and offices all fall under the heading of brownfields.

Brownfields can be found in almost any town or city in the country, making them an issue nationwide. Historically, lending institutions, investors, and real estate developers were cautious when dealing with brownfield redevelopment. However, these entities have become more tolerant of potential exposure as they become more knowledgeable of risk.

Brownfield sites have the potential to pose a threat to public health and safety. Nearby residents could be at risk if the sites have been affected by industrial activities or by the storage or disposal of hazardous waste. Additionally, many such sites do not have proper fencing and barricades to keep out trespassers who could be exposed to chemicals of concern.

Although about 65 percent of former commercial or industrial sites may have some type of environmental contamination, all brownfield sites are not necessarily toxic. Some have elevated concentrations of chemicals that over the long term could affect human health if left idle. In fact, most brownfields can be redeveloped into residential areas. Qualified engineers assess the sites and analyze ecological and human health exposures to determine whether the concentration of chemicals on the site pose concern. Engineering and institutional controls, or zoning restrictions, can be initiated. These controls dictate whether a site is suitable for industrial, commercial, and/or residential use.

In addition to health hazards, brownfields pose monetary value problems. When an industry abandons a facility and a brownfield is the result, there is no taxable income for the city because of the loss of employee income tax and a decrease in the assessed property tax value. With no productivity, the site could cost the owner more in remediation than its unabated net worth.

Many brownfields contain hazardous waste, which EPA defines as 'toxic, corrosive, ignitable, or reactive materials. Hazardous waste is any solid, liquid or containerized gas that can catch fire easily, is corrosive to skin tissue or metals, is unstable and can explode or release toxic fumes or has harmful concentrations of one or more toxic materials that can leach out.'

Air, water, land, and even living animals can transmit hazardous waste. Paint removers, motor oil and varnishes are several common examples. Exposure to hazardous materials could result in birth defects, respiratory problems, infertility, childhood leukemia, and heart disease.

Why Remediate Brownfields? 'We should restore contaminated urban land and buildings to productive use.' --President Bill Clinton, State of the Union Address, Feb. 5, 1997.

EPA has undertaken a Brownfields Initiative to 'empower States, communities, and other stakeholders in economic development to work together in a timely manner to prevent, assess, safely cleanup, and sustainably reuse brownfields.'

In 1997, President Clinton signed the Taxpayer Relief Act, which includes a new tax incentive to stimulate the cleanup and redevelopment of brownfields in distressed urban and rural areas. The Brownfields Tax Incentive is part of a national partnership that outlines a comprehensive approach to the assessment, cleanup, and sustainable reuse of brownfields. The Brownfields Tax Incentive will help bring thousands of abandoned and under-used industrial sites back into productive use, providing the foundation for neighborhood revitalization, the creation of jobs, and the restoration of hope in our nation's cities and distressed rural areas.

Many local government organizations also are working to make their towns and cities better places to live and work. For example, the city of Long Beach, California, works with developers and property owners who are interested in reusing brownfield sites for new retail, commercial, residential, and industrial purposes. Many of the city's existing loan programs accommodate the use of funds for preparation of remediation plans, cleanup of sites, and construction projects.

According to The Detroit News, in the Detroit metropolitan area alone there is an estimated 3,000 brownfields existing on tens of thousands of acres of land. A representative from Michigan introduced legislation designed to clean up brownfields and make them once again usable. Detroit's mayor and other executives support the initiative.

Ohio Governor Bob Taft recently proposed a bond issue to the Ohio legislature that, if approved, has the potential to rescue many neighborhoods from years of decay and pollution. The issue requests bond money to fund brownfield remediation.

A former Ohio governor, George Voinovich, signed a bill into law in 1994 that created a program for voluntary real estate reuse and cleanup called the Voluntary Action Program (VAP). Before the VAP, no one could undertake a cleanup project and be assured it would meet environmental standards without direct oversight from Ohio EPA. Many sites were not investigated because the Ohio EPA gave priority to the sites that posed the most harm. VAP reduces governmental involvement and maximizes state resources.

Under Ohio's VAP, a volunteer can be the person selling the brownfield, the person buying it or inheriting it, or a combination thereof. The volunteer authorizes a certified professional to evaluate the remediated brownfield site. Once the property receives a stamp of approval that the site has been remediated to meet applicable standards, a no-further-action letter is submitted to the Ohio EPA. When Ohio EPA receives the letter, it grants a Covenant Not to Sue, releasing any past, future, or present owner of the site from state civil liability.

Beginning the Cleanup

When any real estate transaction is made, such as the refinancing or sale of property, a qualified professional conducts an Environmental Site Assessment. An ESA normally has three phases.

The history of the brownfield site is reviewed during Phase I. This phase identifies the owners of the site for the past 30 or more years; it determines prior uses of the site, as well as the previous uses of adjacent sites; and the site's regulatory background is investigated, such as the sort of permits that have been issued for the site. The first phase is simply an information-gathering step. As much information about the site and any activities that have taken place there is collected. ESAs for industrial sites usually are conducted by qualified engineering firms and range in cost from $2,000 to $5,000.

Samples of the soil and water may be collected during Phase II ESA. Potential contaminants are identified, and a formal plan for assessing the property is developed. A timeline is drawn up for investigating the extent of contamination on the site, and a schedule is devised for the final completion of cleanup; the price associated with the removal and treatment of any contaminants is estimated. Phase II ESAs cost between $20,000 and $200,000, or more.

Phase III is when the actual cleanup of the brownfield takes place. There are three general remediation treatment options in this phase. First, hazardous substances and contaminated materials are excavated and disposed of in either an on-site or off-site landfill, or some can be burned. Containers, such as barrels or drums, that contain hazardous waste are removed from the site. Contaminated soil is treated or disposed. Option two is containment, which prevents the contamination of the site from spreading to other locations. Some industrial and commercial activities can impact water and soil. To contain it, the site may be need an engineering control, such as a cap made of asphalt or clay. The third option is treatment, which removes or remediates lingering contaminants so they no longer pose a threat to human or ecological receptors. In this phase, water, including rivers, ponds, or an underground aquifer, is remediated, and the soil may be removed, washed, or incinerated.

It is important to note that only qualified professionals should address and/or remediate brownfield sites because of the potential life-threatening hazards associated with the process. There are OSHA regulations (29 CFR 1910.120) that govern the health and safety concerns of field investigations at hazardous waste sites.

Our firms are working together to remediate an old abandoned industrial site in Cleveland, Ohio. The owner of the site, or volunteer, authorized the performance of a Phase I and Phase II ESA. Based on the results, there were several areas of concern which delineated soil and groundwater impacts. We used a risk-based corrective action to address the concerns, then performed remedial activities on site consisting of soil removal and sandblasting of metal contaminated surfaces.

According to the Ohio EPA VAP, the site met applicable standards with the requirement of engineering and institutional controls. These controls will be monitored by the Ohio EPA through an Operation and Maintenance (O&M) Plan and Agreement with the volunteer. The O&M Agreement stays with the land and is transferrable to new owners. The Covenant Not to Sue is valid only if the engineering and institutional controls are in place in accordance with the O&M Plan.

If a program was not outlined to address the environmental problems and if funding was unavailable, the site would have sat idle. Ohio EPA is retooling the VAP to be more timely and responsive to volunteers. However, the cost of VAP investigations and remedial activity tends to be higher than expected. Funding mechanisms for private industries are limited, so costs will have to be incurred by the owner. If funding mechanisms are not established, most owners are not going to volunteer to address their site problems, and brownfields will be a part of our society for a long time to come.


Prospective developers tend to avoid purchasing contaminated sites in fear of being saddled with the environmental cleanup costs. Although brownfields can pose a risk and do not offer much aesthetic value, they should not be ruled out when looking to build or develop land. Because they were once inhabited, brownfields are usually located in areas where the infrastructure already exists. The utilities are already in place, such as electricity, water, and sanitary sewer lines, and generally there is easy access to interstates or highways. They can be completely redeveloped and made safe. In fact, many large industries with numerous properties have initiated a proactive approach to redevelop their 'orphan' properties by utilizing state brownfield redevelopment programs.

Many cities are losing their identities because many industries and businesses have left urban areas and relocated to greenfields. Greenfields, which are the opposite of brownfields, are fresh, undeveloped lands and are typically found in suburbs or rural areas. Brownfields initiatives allow cities to redevelop their inner cities and/or industrial centers while preserving precious greenfields from development.

Urban revitalization requires neighborhood and community development groups to learn how to identify brownfield sites and understand the potential liability issues and environmental concerns associated with their redevelopment. The ability of brownfield property owners and state and local governments to work together to resolve environmental and fiscal challenges will be an increasing trend with a 'win-win' result.

Customer comments

  1. By Mark Chesler on

    ...In a June 26, 1994, Cleveland Plain Dealer article entitled Environmentalists Leery of Possible Loopholes, Chris Trepal, co-director of the Earth Day Coalition in Northeast Ohio, lambasted the enabling VAP legislation as "one of the poorest public policy measures I’ve ever seen." A clairvoyant Richard Sahli, executive director of the Ohio Environmental Council, echoed his sentiment in the May 26,1994, Cincinnati Post, "We do predict there will be a lot of shoddy cleanups under this bill the state will never catch." Testifying before the House Energy & Natural Resources Committee on behalf of the Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers, Cincinnati environmental lawyer David Altman asserted, "This bill is a definite bait-and-switch. What it is supposed to do and what it does is two different things." A seminal, 152 page 2001 Gund Foundation funded study by the Green Environmental Council confirmed the critics’ predictions. A dearth of agency resources to provide meaningful regulatory oversight combined with the lack of a credible, established enforcement mechanism has rendered the feckless, industry aligned program toothless. "It’s a broken program - it doesn’t work," declared the council’s Bruce Cornett in an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Both the Sierra Club and Ohio Citizen Action opposed the 2000 $400 million Clean Ohio state bond issue out of concern the fungible proceeds could be utilized to prop up the lame Voluntary Action Program and create a trojan horse polluters slush fund. "This is the governor's attempt to whitewash his EPA," charged Jane Forrest Redfern, environmental projects director for Ohio Citizen Action in a November 1, 2000, Cleveland Plain Dealer article. Dedicated professionals, veteran Ohio EPA bureaucrats attempted to rectify the problem. According to the October 4, 2000, Cleveland Plain Dealer, "EPA staffers who shared some of the environmentalists’ concerns, at one point launched a quiet but unsuccessful campaign to disband the program." For six years after the Voluntary Action Program’s 1996 implementation, the U.S. EPA refused to extend program participants federal immunity and threatened to decertify the Ohio EPA due to the VAP’s expansive, inhibiting secrecy provisions and tangible lack of transparency. In a brokered, bifurcated modification to the Ohio VAP that "frankly doesn't make sense at all," according to Ohio Public Interest Research Group director Amy Simpson (Akron Beacon Journal, February 24, 2001), an alternative "memorandum of agreement" VAP track with enhanced public access was crafted. Companies that elect the original, opaque, "classic" option, which conceals under an embargo the extent and nature of contamination, will not be afforded U.S. EPA liability insulation. "Why Ohio would want a two-headed monster is beyond me," quipped the Ohio Environmental Council’s Jack Shaner. In SCA’s case, the jaundiced, green and incompliant wants to hide what you can’t see. Mark Chesler Oberlin, Ohio