Brownfields project falls shy of goal

Md. incentives to firms to clean polluted sites lack desired impact

Only 4 qualify in 2 years

As for `Smart Growth, bringing jobs [to city], it's not happening'

August 08, 1999|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

When state lawmakers approved a program giving companies incentives to clean up polluted properties, both business leaders and environmentalists heralded the action as an important step toward cleaning up contaminated sites and saving farms and forests from development.

But two years after the so-called brownfields program passed with thunderous applause, many state officials, business executives and environmentalists say the program has failed to meet expectations and may need to be changed.

Although there are thousands of suspected brownfields sites ranging from closed manufacturing plants to corner gas stations and local dry cleaners, only 52 property owners have applied for the brownfields cleanup program. And only four of those have qualified for state grants and tax credits to help their cleanup efforts.

"It's not the big deal everyone thought and hoped it would be," said Terry Harris, president of the Cleanup Coalition in Baltimore, an environmental group that monitors brownfields sites. "In terms of Smart Growth and bringing jobs back [to the city], it's not happening."

While there have been a few highly publicized brownfields success stories, such as the American Can development in Canton and the landing of a General Motors Corp. transmission assembly factory in White Marsh, the state had hoped for more participation.

Officials with the Department of Business and Economic Development expected to help 10 to 15 property owners a year. There is $1.35 million available to help companies clean up brownfields sites, but state officials expect to award less than half that amount this year.

"It's off to a slower start than we had hoped," said Richard C. Mike Lewin, secretary of the Department of Business and Economic Development.

Business and environmental experts blame the lack of participation on a number of factors: the failure of local governments to support the program, lingering fears about liability and cleanup costs and continued preference to build on greenfields -- land never before developed.

Only seven jurisdictions in Maryland have passed the local legislation required to give companies tax credits to clean up brownfields sites. Recently, Lewin and Maryland Department of Environment Secretary Jane T. Nishida sent letters to local governments that have not passed the brownfields legislation, urging them to do so, but some Baltimore-area counties are still hesitant.

In Anne Arundel, officials are not sure whether the county can afford to give companies tax credits when the county's finances are constrained by a tax cap.

Officials in Harford and Howard counties say they have not felt the need to pass brownfields legislation because they have few sites that qualify and have seen no interest from businesses to redevelop the sites.

Fearful of revelations

On top of that, businesses remain wary of revealing brownfields problems, fearing that the state will use the information against them, or that they will be sued if contaminants leak onto adjacent properties.

"We knew when we started brownfields, the concept is right. But when you are working with private property owners, getting them to come forward and admit they have contamination, it's not something they want to do," said Baltimore County Economic Development Director Robert L. Hannon.

Michael C. Powell, a lawyer who represented Essex Community College in its proposed redevelopment of the Esskay site, said businesses are uncertain about the cleanup requirements and the overall cost of developing a brownfields site.

Business fears have been exacerbated by the Maryland Department of Environment's enforcement policies, said George Kelly, a lawyer who helped write the brownfields legislation.

"After the initial passage, there was a great deal of conservatism at MDE," he said. "They were being very, very cautious."

Kelly said the department appears to have developed greater confidence in the process. "They have evolved where they have greater understanding and are more in tune with the statute."

Standards too strict, too lax?

While business representatives say participation in brownfields is curtailed by cleanup standards that are too strict, environmentalists say the opposite is true.

Harris of the Cleanup Coalition criticized the Maryland Department of Environment for not forcing the owners of polluted properties to clean them up. "If MDE were enforcing the law, there would be more incentive to do it voluntarily," he said.

Quentin Banks, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, brushed aside the criticisms. "The standards we have were tough to begin with and they continue to be tough," he said. "We give it an extremely stringent review."

He said the department has no plans to seek changes in the program. "We are seeing some successes," he said.

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