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Brownfield Sites Present New Opportunities

Looking to develop on a contaminated site, but frustrated by the slow response of state officials to get involved? Many states are now quasi-privatizing the process to get old brownfields cleaned up and back on the tax rolls.

Aug/Sep 09
Many a company or developer has discovered throughout the years that seemingly developable property was anything but - thanks to the presence of ground contaminants from previous uses. And while it is certainly possible (if not cheap) to clean and build on such sites, developers and companies often find the biggest hurdle to doing so is the availability of state officials to monitor the process and ultimately give approval to the final result.

Often facing a ratio as serious as 100 sites for every available member of the regulatory staff, states have struggled to unbury themselves so as to facilitate the process of unburying the contaminants that keep old sites vacant and developers waiting interminably - or looking elsewhere to do their projects.

Bay State Leads the Way
To lessen the backlog and get projects moving toward implementation, many states are now adopting variations of a system implemented by Massachusetts in 1993. The Bay State sought to solve the problem by certifying private-sector companies and individuals - typically engineers with some background in ground contamination and site remediation - to become project managers on individual site remediation efforts. While not acting in an official state capacity, and still requiring state approval on the final result of any remediation, the certified project managers have the freedom to guide developers through the process and oversee the steps that lead to a clean, developable site.

"All of these voluntary or streamlined programs have allowed the developer to interact with an entity on a real-time basis to help them walk through the process," said Pixie Newman, Northeast lead for site remediation and redevelopment for the consulting firm CH2M Hill. "I see that as a significant change, because in effect, depending on how they interact with that licensed professional, the developer has the opportunity to have a partner who can understand, navigate, and get to the end goal."

Other States Follow
Other states began following Massachusetts' lead in recent years as they too faced serious backlogs. One of the first to do so was Connecticut, which in 1995 established a process by which licensed environmental professionals can oversee a site cleanup if commissioned by the state. Perhaps the most ambitious example occurred in New Jersey, where the Site Remediation Reform Act took effect May 7 to begin the certification process that will ultimately put private-sector professionals at the forefront of the process.

"In the past, you would have to wait until the department head had the time and resources to review every submittal you sent in, and OK it," said Irene Krupp, assistant commissioner for site remediation at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). "There was always a lot of back and forth between the department managers and the environmental consultants. We tended to do their work for them."

Krupp said disagreements often arose between staff and consultants about what needed to be done and who would pay for it. As a result, would-be developers who had endured long waits to even get a review would have to wait even longer while regulators and consultants tussled over minute details. The new statute changes that by putting those same consultants in a role that could almost be described as that of an outsourced regulator.

"Now, licensed site remediation professionals can move forward under a very strict code of conduct," Krupp said. "They don't have to be the advocate for their client. They don't want to be the advocate for their client. And in exchange, they don't have to wait for DEP approval, and we get to focus more of our resources on the cases that are most important to us from an environmental perspective."

The first site remediation professionals are expected to be licensed in November.

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