Make brownfields green again

Cortland Standard
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For decades, industrial cities across America, particularly the Northeast, rotted from the inside like dying trees as developers targeted fresh green space on the communities’ fringes.
This wasn’t the flight to the suburbs of post-World War II American families realizing the dream of owning a home. This was fear of what lay (or perhaps didn’t lie) at the core of those cities: contamination and the cost to rehabilitate old industrial spaces.
Look at Binghamton and Johnson City, where a dozen former factories rotted for 30 years before several projects began to take back the space. Look at East Syracuse, where 354 acres of former railroad and industrial space festered for a generation. Or Painted Post, Olean, North Tonawanda. Auburn, Syracuse and Oswego.
Or Cortland. Forty-two brownfields litter the city’s south side and southeast quadrant, and nobody really knows how many others are a pox on the greater Cortland area — places where gas tanks rust under a parking lot, or toxic chemicals were used in some basic industrial process. Maybe there’s no contamination at all, but nobody can say.
The state’s Brownfield Opportunity Area program is a good first step to return those properties to functional use. The $200,000 for the 42 designated brownfields in Cortland is a cheap way to find out what needs to be done to rehabilitate those properties and create a plan to make it happen. (More money will be needed to enact the plans.) But it should never have come to that.
The real problem that keeps those properties from becoming useful again is the very law meant to make sure they were remediated, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 — the Superfund act that created a fund to clean the sites, but also created a chain of liability.
Two flaws in that act push developers to shun brownfields for never-developed greenfields.
The first is the chain of liability. The act creates a “potentially responsible party” to make pay for cleanup (if it’s needed) before the Superfund will pay. It was meant to keep polluters responsible for cleanup, which makes sense. But it holds responsible anyone who owns the property, even if the owner had nothing to do with contamination.
Imagine a site like the former Wickwire factory on Cortland’s south Main Street. It was used for more than a century, starting in 1866. Contamination may have been created 140 years ago. But today’s owner would be on the hook to pay the cost because many brownfields don’t have an existing responsible party. What developers would expose themselves to that kind of risk if a suitable greenfield lies just a couple miles away?
The other flaw is the funding. The Superfund had $4 billion available for cleanup in 1995, 15 years after it was enacted. But Congress failed to reauthorize the fees that kept the bank account full. By 2003, the account was tapped out. Since then, the fund got about $1.1 billion a year. However, the 2018 budget from the Trump administration cuts funding to less than $800 million.
It’s time to revise the Superfund act. Fund it properly. Then revise the “potentially responsible party “ clause to attract developers to brownfields. Better still, give developers willing to take on the challenge a helping hand, legal protection from the “potentially responsible party” clause. Perhaps they can get federal tax credits or grants to ameliorate the costs of tests and cleanup.
Mimicking the state’s Brownfield Opportunity Area program on a national level would be an excellent start. It would identify the brownfields where contamination actually exists and create a plan to make them useful again. The state program pays about $5,000 per brownfield in Cortland. Extended to all the nation’s 450,000 brownfields, the total cost would be about $2.2 billion. That’s virtually nothing to making tens of thousands of sites shovel-ready.
The brownfields would be green again, and industrial cores would sprout new growth.

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