Governor encourages cleanup of brownfields

State program redevelops polluted sites for safe use

November 22, 2003|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. moved forward yesterday on his campaign promise to encourage cleanup and redevelopment of polluted industrial sites by unveiling changes to simplify the process for developers who want to join the state program.

The governor also pledged the administration will try to push a more controversial measure through the General Assembly this winter that would limit developers' liability for the polluted sites known as brownfields.

"What we have been doing in this state for the past decade has not worked as well as it should work," Ehrlich said during a news conference at the Maryland Department of the Environment headquarters in Baltimore. "Brownfield reform is a major agenda item for our administration."

The state's voluntary program is designed to clean up properties contaminated by industrial waste or pollution, making them safe for new users. Developers often consider such sites prime locations because they're located near urban transportation hubs.

Among the most successful brownfields redevelopment projects are the former Montgomery Ward site in Southwest Baltimore and the American Can Co. in Canton. Officials say there are hundreds of brownfields in need of redevelopment across the state.

Under the plan laid out yesterday by Ehrlich and Maryland's secretaries of the environment and economic development, the state will hire a coordinator to oversee brownfields redevelopment and the marketing of those sites to developers.

The state also is cutting the length of the application to the cleanup program from 22 pages to eight, and a new Web site, unveiled yesterday, combines all brownfields program information in one location (www.mde.state.md.us/brownfields).

"We need to make it easier for people to want to get involved in this program, because it's voluntary," said Kendl P. Philbrick, the state's acting environmental secretary.

Ehrlich, who noted that he was a "toxic tort" lawyer before his election to Congress in 1994, said he had repeatedly heard complaints that the complexity and confusion regarding the brownfields program has thwarted interest by developers.

"If I wanted to get involved in a brownfield, I'd have a very complicated 22-page form to fill out, with little chance of getting through the form without a very expensive lawyer," Ehrlich said. "If there's a problem, this administration will fix it and fix it right away."

Yesterday's announcement involved what Ehrlich described as "Part One" of his brownfields plan, involving "the administrative end" of the program -- "the part we control."

The governor refused to discuss specifics of the legislation he will produce, saying that he has not yet received reports from a General Assembly brownfields task force, or from Lynn Y. Buhl -- the nominee for environmental secretary rejected by the Senate last winter.

"Clearly, a major issue is liability," Ehrlich said. "It's very difficult to get people to spend money and take a chance on a project when the liability isn't clear."

Ehrlich also suggested the legislation will tackle an issue he called "finality" -- when a site is declared fully cleaned by regulators and the conditions in which additional work is needed.

"We are having a number of discussions about what the bill should look like," Ehrlich said, noting that the Democrat-controlled legislature will force him to compromise on what he would view as his ideal proposal. "We know that the bill will have tough sledding.... There are vested interests against the bill."

While environmental advocacy groups praised Ehrlich's efforts to market the brownfields program and encourage more redevelopment of contaminated properties, they said the issue of liability remains part of a delicate balance.

"This is really an important program and one we've been very supportive of," said Theresa Pierno, a vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation who is working with the General Assembly brownfields work group. "We think it's important to be marketing the program and making it easier for people to sign up, to ensure there is greater interest in getting properties cleaned up."

But Pierno and Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, said the work group is focusing on finding dedicated funding sources to ensure more sites can be cleaned.

"As far as in any way reducing liability or moving away from enforcement or not getting these properties adequately cleaned up, there is a balance here that we worked very hard to reach," Pierno said. "I think Maryland has a pretty good law on that area, that was discussed and negotiated to death by the business community and the environmental community."

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