WASHINGTON — Washington. -- In his normally delicate fashion, House Speaker Newt Gingrich has stepped into the debate about reclaiming industrial ''brownfields'' by labeling the Environmental Protection Agency ''the biggest job-killing agency in the inner city in America today.''
As Mr. Gingrich sees it, the way the environmental agency applies the 15-year-old federal Superfund toxic-waste cleanup law to old industrial properties is ''irrational and economically destructive.'' It demands, he says, that sites be cleaned to standards for a kindergarten playground. Result: Jobs flee the cities and the poor suffer.
The speaker's cure, in a speech to the Environmental Policy Institute: Congress needs to ''revisit'' the whole idea of the Superfund and to ''delitigate the process.''
The irony is that Mr. Gingrich is right about Superfund history. But he's dead wrong in implying that nothing's being done. While Superfund law reform is surely overdue, the Environmental Protection Agency's past command-control-and-regulate attitude has begun to crumble in place. The reason has been increasingly forceful complaints by urban leaders.
The environmental agency administrator, Carol Browner, sounded like a mayor herself when she announced January 26 that 25,000 of the 38,000 sites on the Superfund list were being removed immediately. When there's suspicion of contamination on a site, she said, ''the neighborhood loses jobs, loses its tax base, loses hope. Meanwhile, develop ment goes on outside the city, in fields and forests never before developed.''
Ms. Browner said it was ''never intended'' that Superfund would be a barrier to city redevelopment. She admitted there was a chilling effect on investors -- that when a site gets on the Superfund list, even if pollution is cleaned up or never proved, ''it's like a bad credit rating that never goes away.''
She said her agency will stay on the trail of actual polluters, and hold them fiscally responsible. But she'll soon release guidelines to allay one of the biggest fears the Superfund law has generated -- the legal liability of those who redevelop contaminated sites, but had no hand in causing the pollution themselves.
Finally, ''as a cornerstone of EPA's efforts to revitalize American cities,'' Ms. Browner promises the agency will fund pilot projects in 50 cities, each at $200,000, to help communities recycle brownfields more rapidly. The idea is to move city governments, developers, investors and regulators to cooperate and clear sites without sacrificing the basic protections against toxic pollution that triggered the Superfund law in the first place.
Cleveland is the first pilot. The cleanup effort by the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission, with $100,000 in earlier EPA funds, is claimed to have leveraged $1.7 million in private cleanup dollars, $250,000 in foundation grants, 100 new jobs and a $645,000 increase in yearly property taxes.
With and without special federal monies, other urban regions are moving forward aggressively. The New York Regional Plan Association, for example, spent three years putting together an inventory of brownfield sites in Union County, New Jersey. It found 185 sites totaling 2,500 acres that could be recycled.
In a big breakthrough, Danish builder Peter Aagaard paid $10 million (half the normal market price) for a scraggly Elizabeth, N.J., brownfield -- the city's former dump. He is cleaning it up to build a factory outlet with 200 stores and 7,300 parking spaces.
Such demonstration projects are important to prove sites can be recycled, says New York Regional Plan's Robert Yaro. Still, Superfund law scares off American banks. ''I keep saying to our banks,'' says Mr. Yaro: '''How often do we have to do these projects with European bankers, right in your backyard, before you see it's safe and appropriate?'''
Chicago, a big brownfields site, has moved to the forefront of industrial recycling. The effort began with a pilot project of Mayor Richard Daley's administration, focused on five difficult sites to see how brownfields can be pushed through to redevelopment and new jobs.
And now, with MacArthur Foundation support, a Chicago Brownfields Forum has been set up. It appears to be America's broadest effort yet to figure out how laws and policies need to be changed to cope with the brownfields problem.
Run by Clean Sites, a non-profit organization that focuses on environmental issues, the Chicago Forum has all the stakeholders imaginable -- federal, state and local government regulators, industrialists, environmentalists, community-development corporations, regional planning organizations and environmental law firms. Working groups are delving into such issues as scientific assessment of toxic risk, legal impediments to clearing sites, financial barriers, and how to prevent future brownfield sites.
The University of Illinois at Chicago is cooperating with an assessment of the economic impact of redeveloping brownfields as opposed to development on suburban ''greenfields.'' The local Environmental Protection Agency office is cooperating enthusiastically with the process.
What this says is that the ''feds'' can work cooperatively with a broad-based local consensus-building process. Repeated in cities nationwide, the Chicago Brownfields Forum could produce important dividends. It's a better way than Mr. Gingrich's solution of excoriating the federal agency.
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.