House OKs bill on polluted site cleanup Voluntary action would be encouraged

March 06, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.

The House of Delegates unanimously approved legislation yesterday to encourage voluntary cleanup of abandoned factories and warehouses in Maryland after amending the measure to ease environmental concerns.

The so-called "brownfields" bill would grant relief from liability to owners or buyers of contaminated property as long as they voluntarily clean it up to standards set by the state. The measure also offers grants, loans and tax credits to encourage redevelopment of polluted sites.

The bill now goes to the Senate, which is considering a more limited measure favored by environmentalists.

The House vote was hailed by business and municipal leaders, who complain that old business tracts have been shunned for redevelopment because of buyers' fear that they will be dragged into costly cleanups of pollution left behind by former owners.

While developers still may favor untainted open land, in many cases, Champe C. McCulloch, president of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, predicted the bill would result in the recycling of some commercial and industrial sites that have been spurned because of real or suspected contamination.

"Obviously it's going to take a little digestion time, but there are properties I think will be fairly speedily put back into the economic stream and others that will take more time to put back in," Mr. McCulloch said.

Charles Graves, Baltimore's planning director, estimated that the city alone could get 7,000 to 10,000 new jobs if vacant or underused industrial land is cleaned up and recycled.

Twenty-six states -- including neighboring Delaware, Pennsylvania and Virginia -- now have programs to encourage voluntary cleanup or "recycling" of old industrial sites. Proponents have argued that Maryland needs to follow suit in order to compete for economic development.

Under the bill, property owners who come forward would be given flexibility in deciding how to clean up contamination. Once they complete plans, owners officially would be released from having to do more remedial work. Such assurances are vital to getting financing to buy and develop land, officials say.

Baltimore In Baltimore, city planners estimate that up to half of the nearly 900 acres of vacant land is tainted with oil or toxic pollution. Fairfield, one of three areas in the city targeted for government-assisted redevelopment, has 35 or 40 such sites.

The measure approved by the House had been amended substantially in committee to ease environmentalists' concerns that polluters would be let off the hook for properties they contaminated, forcing taxpayers to pay for the cleanup.

The changes to the bill give the state Department of the Environment greater oversight and authority to require additional cleanup if new problems are discovered afterward. The agency also would maintain a cleanup fund of at least $1 million in case an owner defaults.

"This bill treats polluters very differently than others who propose to do cleanup," said Del. Leon G. Billings, a Montgomery County Democrat, who had expressed reservations before. "I think this bill meets the basic needs of those who want to clean up these sites."

The most polluted sites known in Maryland, which are already covered by federal or state cleanup orders, would not be eligible for the more lenient "brownfields" treatment.

Environmentalists said the House bill still gives too much leeway to polluters, raising the risks that taxpayers could be stuck with the costs.

"If the cleanup doesn't happen, who bears responsibility?" asked Thomas Grasso, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Activists favor the Senate's version of the bill, which covers only prospective purchasers of contaminated property, not the owners.

But Sen. Brian Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored that bill, said he was looking at ways to amend his measure to include some owners of polluted property.

Pub Date: 3/06/96

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