Brownfields bill to help reuse old industrial sites Delayed city project shows cleanup issues

February 02, 1997|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

This spring, more than 100 townhouses are expected to sprout on a weedy, debris-strewn field in Southwest Baltimore where an old metal fabricating plant once stood.

Barre Station, the housing project, has been a long time coming. Announced three years ago, the groundbreaking has been delayed as Baltimore spent nearly $1 million -- far more than expected -- to remove old concrete building slabs and to clean oil and toxic chemicals tainting the soil.

Legislation introduced recently in Annapolis could make it easier to reuse such brownfields. The bill offers regulatory and financial incentives to clean contamination left after plant gates close.

FOR THE RECORD - The spelling of C. William Struever has been corrected for the archive database. See microfilm for original story.

Supported by business and environmental groups, the compromise measure is expected to win quick approval.

"If the legislature adopts a strong brownfields program, that will open the floodgates," predicted Kenneth S. Kamlet, a Silver Spring lawyer who represents clients trying to develop old industrial sites.

But the struggle to launch Barre Station shows the promise and the pitfalls of recycling old industrial land.

Contamination proved to be more extensive than thought. Old electrical transformers stored on site were vandalized, causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) to leak. Later, demolition crews removing a concrete slab foundation discovered an underground vault of solvents.

"It has not been a cakewalk," acknowledged Zack Germroth, spokesman for the city's Housing and Community Development Department.

Nationwide, with encouragement from the Environmental Protection Agency, brownfields programs have taken off. Thirty-one states have enacted voluntary cleanup programs, the EPA says.

In Pennsylvania, for instance, officials report that 64 former industrial sites have been cleaned up in the past 18 months, and 128 are in the works.

A Maryland task force estimates the state has perhaps 1,200 "brownfields," with 900 acres in Baltimore alone. A separate study identified 3,200 acres of vacant or underutilized land around the port in the city and in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties.

But some environmentalists caution that economic and social factors may hinder redevelopment of sites, even if fears of liability for cleanup are lifted.

Some real estate experts suggest that developers will need substantial government financial help in loans, grants or tax breaks to entice them to take chances on old factories.

"They need a pool of money," said Maureen McManus, a consultant to Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse, a development firm. Maryland already has an informal brownfields program. Using EPA grants, the Department of the Environment has checked out 24 industrial sites around the state for possible contamination and plans to do 33 more in the next year and a half.

But advocates say a brownfields law would help stimulate private voluntary cleanups by creating standard procedures.

Under the bill, a landowner or developer would have to submit an application and $6,000 fee, along with an assessment of what, if any, environmental problems existed.

Virtually any property, landowner or developer would be eligible. Exceptions would be hazardous waste dumps targeted for federal Superfund cleanup and properties under active state enforcement. Also barred would be any person or company who knowingly or willfully dumped hazardous waste.

The environment department could approve or deny the application for voluntary cleanup or determine none is needed.

If a site were approved, the applicant would have to develop a cleanup plan and the state would have to hold a public information meeting.

After cleanup, the state would issue a certificate of completion stating that no further work was required. The state, however, would reserve the right to demand necessary remediation if previously undisclosed contamination or an imminent threat to public health or the environment were discovered.

The liability provisions in Maryland's bill are similar to those adopted in other states. But the financial incentives pale next to the multimillion-dollar brownfield funds of some other states.

Maryland's legislation would allow local governments to offer property tax breaks for brownfields. Localities could allow developers to waive 50 percent of the tax that they might have to pay as a result of boosting a property's value through redevelopment, and provisions are included for increasing the tax write-off to 80 percent.

Maryland would create a brownfields fund, using some property taxes paid on the increased value of redeveloped sites. But state officials say they cannot predict how much revenue might be generated, or how quickly.

Pennsylvania, by comparison, has set up a $15 million "industrial sites cleanup fund," offering innocent parties grants or low-interest loans covering up to 75 percent of the costs of an environmental study and cleanup.

Raymond C. Feldmann, a spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, said the state hopes to secure federal funds or tap other state funds for brownfields incentives.

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