N.Y. town struggles with industrial blight

Economic heritage leaves legacy of polluted waterfront

April 27, 2003|By Winnie Hu | Winnie Hu,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

TROY, N.Y. -- This rough-hewn city along the Hudson just north of Albany claims to be where the Industrial Revolution began in America, and it even salvaged the remains of an old ironworks foundry by turning it into a museum. But its industrial heritage also left a different legacy: polluted land along the waterfront.

These abandoned industrial sites, known as brownfields, have long been contaminated with chemicals, fuel and other pollutants that seeped deep into the ground. Until the brownfields are cleaned up, they cannot be used for other purposes, frustrating the city's plans for a $100 million effort to redevelop the waterfront.

"This city was one of the economic engines for the Empire State," said Mayor Mark Pattison of Troy. "And we are suffering from that now."

Many cities and towns say that brownfields have become their biggest environmental problem, and by some counts there are more than 10,000 of them scattered across the state, including thousands in New York City alone. Most have remained untouched for decades, scarring inner cities and older suburbs, and in some instances contributing to sprawl by causing developers to turn to greener fields like farmland.

While Gov. George E. Pataki and state leaders say that something must be done to reclaim these blighted urban areas, they have remained deadlocked for nearly four years over how to clean up brownfields. Environmental groups and lobbyists routinely point to the issue as one of the most blatant examples of dysfunction in the Capitol, where impasses often paralyze legislation for years.

How clean is clean?

At the heart of the legislative standoff is a disagreement over how clean is clean. Democratic Assembly leaders have pushed for rigorous and costly cleanups of all brownfields. Pataki, a Republican, and the Republican-controlled Senate, so as not to scare off developers, have advocated less stringent cleanups of sites that are to be used for commercial and industrial projects.

This year, however, Senate and Assembly leaders have indicated that brownfields are a priority, and they have made overtures toward an agreement. Last month, the Senate diverged from the governor's longstanding brownfields proposal and passed its own, calling for tougher cleanup standards and financial incentives for property owners.

"It was time to get it done, it was time to create some action," said the Senate majority leader, Joseph L. Bruno, whose district includes Troy. He recently surveyed a crumbling red-brick factory along the Troy waterfront that he said illustrated the problems.

The Assembly is considering several significant concessions, including less stringent cleanups of sites that are not going to be used for residential purposes. "I don't think we compromised on standards," Assemblyman Thomas P. DiNapoli, the bill's sponsor, said. But members of both chambers have questioned whether Pataki will be willing to compromise on the issue, or whether they will reach an agreement only to face a veto from the governor. Pataki included brownfields legislation in his executive budget in January, and state officials have continued to lobby for it.

A spokeswoman for the governor, Suzanne Morris, said that while his aides have not yet seen the Assembly bill, they have already started working with Senate leaders.

$170 million unused

New York is one of the few states without a law to regulate the cleanup of privately owned brownfields. While a 1996 state law set aside $200 million to help restore brownfields owned by local governments, municipalities have applied for money for only 153 sites. About $170 million remains unused, largely because, local officials say, it is burdensome to comply with the law's requirements. Another reason is that many brownfield sites are privately owned.

The state's Department of Environmental Conservation is also monitoring the reclamation of 568 privately owned brownfields through a voluntary program established in 1994. Under that program, property owners agree to pay for the costs in return for certain assurances that they will not be sued for future cleanups.

The environmental conservation commissioner, Erin M. Crotty, said the governor's bill would strengthen and expand existing cleanup standards that have already proven effective in New York and other states. Some Assembly members and environmentalists have criticized the department for approving less rigorous cleanups of brownfields that are to be used for commercial and industrial buildings. They say allowing even a small amount of pollution to remain in the ground limits the future use of that site and may contaminate neighboring properties

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