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Congress has passed and sent to the White House legislation to foster the clean up of tainted industrial sites. The measure could 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 innocent developers from liability for toxic wastes that existed at a site prior to the purchase of the property.

The President supports the Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act and is expected to sign it.

The National Association of Realtors applauded the measure's passage. But the National Association of Home Builders said it does not go far enough because thousands of sites contaminated by petroleum are not covered.

"We appreciate Congress's efforts to try to solve this problem," said NAHB President Bruce Smith "There is no question that with this bill, builders can begin redevelopment. But that redevelopment will be marginal."

However, NAR President Martin Edwards called the bill a "major victory."

"Realtors are committed to smart growth, and you can't get much smarter growth than turning abandoned industrial sites into productive, multi-use properties," Edwards said.

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."

The sites including old filling stations, dry cleaning establishments and manufacturing plants, among others. According to the General Accounting Office, there could be a half-a-million such sites throughout the country.

Although clean-up programs are well underway in a number of localities, liability concerns and a lack of adequate resources has hampered most efforts. But the bill cleared by Congress provides liability relief for innocent property owners who have not caused or contributed to hazardous waste contamination.

It also increases funding for the cleanup and redevelopment of contaminated sites, recognizes the finality of successful state hazardous waste cleanup efforts under state brownfield programs, and extends protection from legal and financial liabilities to prospective purchasers and developers who undertake cleanup projects.

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.

Brownfields often cluster near prime real estate and already enjoy easy access to existing infrastructure, labor and other resources. Typically, such sites contribute immediately to creating jobs, increasing the tax base, easing traffic congestion, justifying investments in mass transit and providing new housing.

But NAHB President Smith said the measure does not address the sites that could benefit most from clean-up efforts.

"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," the Walnut Creek, Calif., builder said. "By excluding liability protection for these kinds of sites, Congress has in effect prevented their cleanup and rehabilitation."

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