How Superfund Stifles Urban Recovery

May 02, 1994|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

DENVER — Denver. -- Will the revamping of the federal Superfund law, now before Congress, be a boon for cities?

The country's mayors and councils have high hopes that a rewritten law would let them recycle blighted industrial ''brownfield'' sites into productive use. It would save rural ''greenfields'' and help industries locate close to inner cities' job-hungry populations.

The cities believe we couldn't do much worse than Superfund's litigation- and delay-plagued system to protect public health by requiring close to 100 percent cleanup of sites once polluted by industrial use. In 14 years under the law, only a fraction of the nation's 1,200 Superfund sites (the vast majority of which are in our metropolitan regions), have been cleaned up.

Philadelphia's Mayor Edward Rendell made a big point of Superfund reform in the ''New Urban Agenda'' he released last month. Cities, he argued, ought to be exempted from legal liability for a site's toxic history when they acquire land they believe is safe to restore to productive business use.

What's more, he said, it's time to scuttle rules requiring cleanup of trace amounts of chemicals which pose little or no scientifically measurable health threat.

The Clinton administration's draft reform bill would loosen standards for some cleanups, especially on lands slated for factories and stores and not for housing or parks.

But some critics say the administration's approach is flawed because it doesn't junk the whole concept of ''retroactive liability'' for industries, hospitals, colleges, local governments -- any party unlucky enough to own part of a site somebody once polluted. One alternative approach would be a business tax to fund a general cleanup trust fund.

Yet even imperfect reform by Congress may bring us significant steps forward. We seem to be forsaking the idea that we're wise enough and rich enough to recycle every site to total purity.

Further, people are beginning to understand that cities suffer when repairable sites are kept in limbo, unavailable for redevelopment, and that poor and minority people suffer

most. Some people even have the courage to say we'd spend our money better on other health or environmental measures, especially when suspect sites don't pose major risk.

Former Gov. Richard Lamm of Colorado acknowledges that many sites are so dangerously polluted, and critically located, that they need expensive cleanups. But he recalls with regret the $30 million -- virtually all federal money -- he agreed to spend to clean up tailings from uranium mining at Grand Junction.

''It was great for a politico,'' he recalls. ''It created jobs. The Chamber of Commerce folks loved the new money running through their economy.'' But the scientific studies showed the tailings unlikely to cause more than one cancer death every 7 or 10 years.

''The fact is I could find 100 better ways to spend that money for people's lives -- but those ideas never get put on the scales,'' notes Mr. Lamm. ''With our nation in an international race to create jobs and economic opportunity for our kids, does it make sense to spend money this way?''

Anyway, he adds, ''the best way to keep a society healthy is to get people jobs.''

Within the Denver orbit are two of the nation's biggest, potentially most expensive Superfund sites -- the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, where nerve gas once was made, and the Rocky Flats area where plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs were assembled.

Does it make sense to spend the billions of dollars -- $5 billion for Rocky Flats alone -- that's said to be necessary for total cleanups? A big chunk of the 6,500-acre Rocky Flats area could also be returned to productive use, simply barring public access to the 350 acres of seriously polluted territory, and placing a buffer zone around it.

The Arsenal site, beside soon-to-close Stapleton Airport, already draws 50,000 people a year to watch eagles and game herds. Less than 7 percent of the 27,000-acre site is polluted. Congress has designated it as a mountain plains ecosystem urban wildlife area. Everyone agrees treatment of ground water runoff from the polluted section will be necessary. But expenditures could soar from $2 billion to as much as $6 billion for a meticulously complete cleanup of the core area.

So, more people are asking, why not just put the damaged land sections ''on the shelf'' for a few generations?

Taking even a fraction of those billions and applying that cash to sound urban redevelopment -- reuse of the 4,700-acre Stapleton site for mixed residential and commercial use, for example -- would permit Denver to grow for decades without causing additional suburban sprawl, and with dramatic air-pollution savings.

Such trade-offs may not be available in other regions. But at least the superheated emotionalism that has swirled around Superfund seems to be cooling a little. The time was never riper to start talking realistically about the future use of these lands, and how much we really need to spend on Cadillac cleanups.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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