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Federal legislation to foster the clean up of tainted industrial sites could be the spark that ignites hundreds of urban revitalization projects throughout the country, advocates believe.

The bill, the Brownfields Revitalization and Environmental Restoration Act, provides money for both federal and state clean-up programs, relieves current owners of liability for cleansing the ground, and gives federal recognition to the finality of successful state cleanup efforts.

Nearly all 50 states have some form of voluntary brownfield clean-up program. But many proponents are looking to Uncle Sam to lead the way with standards under which private enterprise could work to rejuvenate stagnant property without being held responsible for contamination that was present before they arrived on the scene.

The measure is practically identical to last year's legislation which enjoyed bi-partisan support from 67 Senate co-sponsors and more than 40 national trade groups, environmental organizations and business associations.

The Environmental Protection Agency defines brownfields as "abandoned, idled or under used industrial and commercial facilities whose expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination."

These sites include old filling stations, dry cleaning establishments and manufacturing plants, among others. According to the General Accounting Office, there could be as many as 500,000 such places throughout the country.

Reclaiming brownfields for residential and commercial development is widely championed as a way to create jobs, improve the tax base, ease congestion and justify investments in mass transit. Since the sites usually cluster near prime real estate and already enjoy easy access to existing streets, highways, sewers and labor pools, "the opportunity costs are staggering," says Richard Mendenhall, president of the National Association of Realtors.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors agrees. A recent USCM study estimated that by re-utilizing some 200 such sites, local and metro area tax revenues could grow by anywhere from $878 million to $2.4 billion annually and a half-million new jobs could be created. The sites in question cover 81,500 acres.

And a report from the National Governors Association maintains that effective re-utilization would include housing. California alone has 365 sites that could create 21,000 jobs, 5,200 housing units and $475 million in additional tax revenues annually, NGA says. And in Michigan, the study counted nearly 3,000 brownfield sites which, if redeveloped, would yield nearly 8,000 jobs, $1.1 million in revenue and 1,400 housing units.

Although clean-up programs are well underway in a number of states, liability concerns and a lack of adequate resources have slowed most efforts.

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