At the site of an abandoned steel foundry that is now the centerpiece of a 40-acre office, recreation and residential center on the banks of the Schuylkill River in Conshohocken, PA, President Bush on Friday signed legislation to foster the clean up of tainted industrial sites, a measure its backers say will be the impetus for hundreds of urban revitalization projects throughout the country.
The bill gives states and localities up to $250 million a year for five years to clean up polluted industrial sites, known as "brownfields." It also shields potential developers from liability for the cost of cleaning up toxic wastes that existed at a site prior to the purchase of the property.
"Environmental protection and economic growth can go together," the President said. "It is possible for the two to exist."
Mr. Bush also said his next budget will double the funding available through the Environmental Protection Agency, from $98 million in fiscal '02 to $200 million in fiscal '03, to help states and communities rehabilitate forsaken properties where redevelopment is blocked by possible contamination and potential liability under the federal "Superfund" law.
The EPA estimates that there are between 500,000 and one million brownfield sites throughout the country.
The 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." The eyesore site including old filling stations, dry cleaning establishments and manufacturing plants, among others.
Although clean-up programs are well underway in some 40 states, liability concerns and a lack of adequate resources has hampered most efforts. Under Superfund, owners and operators of a polluted property can be held liable for the cost of the cleanup, regardless of whether they actually caused any of the contamination.
President Bush said the bill will reverse the "old ways" of doing things, which was "to mandate, regulate and litigate," often spending more time haggling over regulatory details than working to fix problem.
Over the years, many communities and entrepreneurs have sought to redevelop brownfield sites but were blocked by excessive regulation and the fear of endless regulation. And as a result, the President said, development was pushed outward, leaving cities empty.
The practice of reclaiming brownfields for residential and commercial development is widely championed by environmentalists, developers, civic and political leaders, urban theorists and academics as well as real estate brokers and managers.
In its February 2000 survey, the U.S. Conference of Mayors estimated that cleanup and redevelopment of brownfields could generate $2.4 billion a year in new tax revenues.
Because the sites are often clustered near prime real estate and already enjoy easy access to existing infrastructure, labor and other resources, their rebirth typically contribute almost immediately to creating jobs and easing traffic congestion.
Not everyone, however, thinks the legislation goes far enough.
"We appreciate Congress's efforts to address this serious environmental issue, but we are disappointed that the House and Senate didn't go further," said Bruce Smith, president of the National Association of Hoembuilders (NAHB).
"Because key elements were omitted from the bill," says NAHB, "thousands of brownfields sites contaminated by petroleum won't get redeveloped and revitalized. These sites could have been cleaned up and turned into areas providing economic opportunity for workers, new homes for families and cleaner neighborhoods for residents, if Congress had only been bolder."
"There is no question that with this bill, builders can begin redevelopment. But that redevelopment will be marginal," said NAHB.
"When it comes to liability protection for developers, the sites contaminated with petroleum that need real help -- and that could benefit most from proven cleanup efforts -- are not being addressed at all in this bill. The General Accounting Office estimates that there are approximately 450,000 brownfields sites nationwide. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that as many as 200,000 sites contain abandoned underground storage tanks or have been contaminated by some type of petroleum product. By excluding liability protection for these kinds of sites, Congress has in effect prevented their cleanup and rehabilitation."
More than 500 people already work at the Millennium Corporate Center where the Schuylkill Iron Works once stood. Located 20 minutes from Philadelphia, the site is the 1,000th redeveloped under the Pennsylvania Land Recycling Program.
"One of the best ways to arrest urban sprawl is to develop brownfields and make them productive pieces of land where people can find work," the President said.