House passes brownfields reform bill

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WASHINGTON – At the end of a marathon, all night session, the U.S. House of Representatives on Dec. 20 passed legislation aimed at making it easier to reuse lightly contaminated industrial sites, known as brownfields.

The measure is expected to help revitalize aging urban areas and curb the growing trend toward suburban sprawl.

The Brownfields Reform and Small Business Liability Relief Act (HR 2869), introduced by Representative Paul Gillmor, an Ohio Republican, passed on a voice vote at 4:58 a.m. The bill combines two previously introduced legislative proposals – the Small Business Liability Relief Act (HR 1831), which Gillmor introduced and which passed the House earlier this year, and the Brownfields Reform Legislation (S 350) passed by the Senate.

“This is truly one of the most significant environmental reform measures to pass Congress in several sessions,” said Gillmor. “The bill is still aimed at cleaning abandoned contaminated industrial sites and revitalizing communities by providing much needed liability reform, regulatory certainty and cleanup dollars.”

Christie Whitman, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, praised the bill, noting that it includes several provisions which President George W. Bush supported as part of his campaign promises.

“This bipartisan legislation will remove barriers to brownfields cleanup and reduce litigation by differentiating between large contributors of toxic waste and small businesses who disposed of only small amounts of waste or ordinary trash, and should not be considered responsible parties,” said Whitman. “It gives increased funding and flexibility to state and local governments for cleanup of brownfields.”

“It also gives prospective redevelopers assurances that the federal government will not come after them for past pollution at the redevelopment site, and has small business liability reform,” Whitman said. “This bill will bring much needed clarity to the liability section of the Superfund law.”

Exemption added. The bill adds a small business liability exemption to the nation’s Superfund law, which helps fund cleanup of abandoned sites contaminated with hazardous wastes, particularly where the original polluters cannot be found or have gone bankrupt. Under the bill, businesses would be shielded from the cost of a Superfund site clean up if they did not contribute a significant amount of non-hazardous waste to the site, and did not add any hazardous wastes.

Calling the bill a “big win” for the small business community, Gillmor noted that “many small businesses are held responsible for the full cost of cleaning up a contaminated site even if they have disposed of minor quantities of hazardous or municipal solid waste, like chicken bones or jars of spaghetti sauce. This legislation will save small businesses money and headaches, while ensuring that hazardous waste sites continue to be cleaned up,” Gillmor added.

Reform portion. The brownfields reform portion of the bill, which the Senate passed unanimously in April, is aimed at protecting innocent parties such as the owners of property owners adjacent to contaminated sites, prospective site purchasers, and landowners who did not contribute to the contamination of their property.

Under the bill, for example, if a business owner purchases a site which is later found to be contaminated with hazardous wastes from previous owners, the new owner cannot be made to pay for cleaning the site. Instead, the state or federal government would go after the previous owners, or, if they cannot be found, draw funds from existing Superfund or brownfields revitalization monies to pay for cleanup.

Gillmor’s bill would help pay for such cleanups, by providing $200 million annually over the next five years to states to clean and revitalize brownfields properties. It funds the assessment and clean up of abandoned brownfield sites and creates a public record of brownfield sites.

State programs. The bill also provides additional assurances to the states that the federal government will not later override brownfields cleanup decisions under state programs.

“Recycling brownfields is good for the economy; it protects America’s pristine greenfields while creating jobs,” Gillmor added.

Construction site of the new Dallas Sports Arena in Texas, built on the site of a former Dallas Electric Company generating plant

Environmental groups support the legislation because the redevelopment of urban brownfields means less demand for new properties – often carved from former farms and other green spaces on the edge of town.

Reduce sprawl. “By encouraging the redevelopment of brownfields sites across the country, the bill will help revitalize urban areas and reduce suburban sprawl,” said Mark Izeman, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It will go a long way toward transforming contaminated sites into properties that enhance the quality of life – both environmentally and economically – of America’s urban communities.”

“One important challenge in the bill’s implementation, however, is to ensure that state brownfield cleanup standards adequately protect public health and the environment over the long term,” Izeman said. “It is also critical that states maintain public records, such as deed restrictions, on sites where toxic substances have not been completely removed after cleanup actions have been completed.”

The EPA’s Whitman concentrated on the potential economic benefits of the bill.

“Brownfields is exactly the kind of program that can bring new investment into a local economy,” said Whitman. “This bill authorizes funding to assess and cleanup abandoned industrial sites that are environmental eyesores. Returning these sites to productive use can bring needed jobs and also will improve the tax base of many communities.”

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