Turning brown into green

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Eye from Albany
February 2001

Turning brown into green
by Paul M. Bray

State legislators like to talk about how they do the people?s business. In the 2001 session the brownfields issue or how to turn the brown of the State?s wasted urban backyards into green gateways of urban revival will be the ultimate test of whether the people?s business is being addressed successfully.

The contrast between greenfields and brownfields couldn?t be starker. Greenfields are virgin land generally on the fringes of suburbs where Wal-Marts and subdivisions increasingly blossom forth instead of crops and trees. In more than 10,000 urban sites of crumbling asphalt, vacant factories and ground contaminated by chemicals across the State we have what has come to be called brownfields. Needless to say, builders that drive suburban sprawl do their thing in greenfields while brownfields stay contaminated and fallow. To curb sprawl and help bring cities back into the development game brownfields need to be more competitive for development.

How to cleanup and redevelop brownfields is one of the most intractable public issues in New York State. The issues it has spawned are many and contentious. Who is going to pay to cleanup brownfields? How clean is clean? How do you address the racism and poverty issues that stigmatize and create second class status to neighborhoods with brownfields? How can you design a regulatory process including permissible reuses and long term monitoring that suits both developers and environmentalists?

A ninety member Brownfield Coalition that includes environmental, business and inner city community representatives has been grappling with these kind of questions for more than a year. The Coalition was able to come up with legislation last year, A. 10408 sponsored by Assemblymember Vito Lopez and S.7296 sponsored by Senator Carl Marcellino, but fell far short in creating consensus on the issue. ?It is a terrible mess?, said Val Washington from Environmental Advocates who has given countless hours to seeking resolution on brownfields cleanup and reuse.

The environmental community is split on the brownfields issue. At one end of the spectrum are the Citizens? Environmental Coalition, NYPIRG and Sierra Club with a hard line on brownfields cleanup. In fact, they appear to have drawn a line in the sand to the effect that anything less than pristine cleanup of brownfields would continue the second class status of blighted neighborhoods and could threaten the health of present and future families and communities. Ann Rabe from the Citizens? Environmental Coalition believes we need to stay focused ?on a how clean can we leave these sites approach rather than how dirty can we leave them? for industrial or commercial reuse.

Other environmentalists believe that the cost of achieving pristine, across the State cleanup of brownfields is out of reach and will guarantee that their blight would continue in perpetuity. Environmental Associates and other environmental interests on the Coalition have been trying to design an innovative approach to ?achieve urban revitalization without compromising our health and environment and without perpetuating the second class status of neighborhoods despoiled by brownfields?. They are seeking to provide the certainty on issues of liability and cleanup methods and standards that developers need to get financing while providing a meaningful role for local communities in the process.

Standing off to the side hoping to work out a brownfields bill with the Governor are the more button down, insider environmental organizations like NRDC, League of Conservation Voters and Environmental Defense.

Yes, there is a lot of politics surrounding this issue where some are focused on not letting polluters off the hook, others are jockeying for political position and still others are trying to do the difficult balancing between public needs and private realities. Brownfields may be more difficult than other environmental issues because we are a nation accustomed to trashing and leaving the mess behind. We aren?t accustomed to going back and correcting our mistakes as we need to do with brownfields. Further complicating legislative action is that for some brownfields is a pawn in a tug of war over refinancing the State?s superfund and oil spill fund which needs to be accomplished this year.

The fact that more than half of the states have enacted brownfields cleanup programs indicates that even New York can do it.

It would be nice to see the State Legislature really do the people?s business on the brownfields issue by crafting a innovative brownfields cleanup program in an environmentally sound, equitable and economically feasible fashion. Not that long ago the Legislature took on another intractable environmental issue, preservation of the Long Island Pine Barrens, and through a bi-partisan effort led by Senator LaValle and Assemblymember DiNapoli was able to bring the key players together after years of squabbling and craft an effective approach that has protected 50,000 acres of pine barrens and created a land management process for a second 50,000 acres.

If our Legislators can get beyond finger pointing and posturing and move into a leadership and problem solving mode, the brownfields blot on our environment and communities could be well on its way to being removed.