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From the December 2006 Conservationist

Brownfields: New Life, New Uses

By Larry Ennist

Brownfields: New Life, New Uses cover

You may see them as you drive to work or walk to school: the boarded-up gas station on Main Street; the decaying plant by the river; the vacant factory surrendering to rust and weeds at the edge of town. Such sites seem to be permanent fixtures in the landscape, silent memorials to economic change and flawed environmental practices. The good news is that under New York's brownfields program many contaminated properties like Mitchell Park in Greenport, Long Island (pictured) have been cleaned up and redeveloped.

These community eyesores have been dubbed "brownfields." Typically they are abandoned or partially vacant industrial and commercial properties. Chemicals and waste products may have contaminated such facilities because they were handled improperly. Communities and volunteers have been reluctant to redevelop brownfields because the contamination can be costly to clean up. They have also been concerned that contamination could entangle them in legal problems. The mere suspicion that a site might be contaminated may brand it as a brownfield and prevent its reuse.

A Large Issue

The problem is enormous. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there are more than 450,000 brownfields nationwide. The exact number of brownfields in New York is not known. However, it is certain that thou-sands exist, tarnishing big cities, small towns, sprawling suburbs and the countryside. Nearly every community in New York is affected. Poorer neighborhoods often suffer the largest impacts-and these are the areas that could benefit most from the redevelopment of these sites. Brownfields create community health risks, spoil the environment, perpetuate unemployment, erode tax bases and accelerate sprawl development. Many municipalities have been saddled with the financial and environmental hard-ship of brownfields after the original owners abandoned the properties or went bankrupt.

Perpetual Problems

One obstacle to brownfield reuse is uncertainty about site conditions. Though they often are less contaminated than state "Superfund" sites, most brownfields have not been investigated, so the extent of the threat to public health and the environment is unknown. Legal issues have also hindered brownfield developers, because federal and New York State Superfund laws traditionally held the current owners and operators of contaminated sites responsible for cleanup costs, whether or not they actually contaminated the properties. The bottom line is that, if municipalities, lenders and developers fear that involvement with brownfields will make them liable for contamination they did not cause, they will opt to invest in and develop "green space." As a result, new facilities often are constructed in suburbs and rural areas. These practices consume open space such as farmland and forests, and contribute to congestion and sprawl. DEC has helped New York become a national leader to challenge these trends and bring contaminated properties back to life. DEC's Voluntary Cleanup Program, which is no longer accepting applications, began in 1994, enabling businesses, industries and financial institutions to quickly clean up contaminated sites for reuse. Under DEC over-sight, volunteers could investigate and clean up a site to fully protect people's health and the environment for the next intended use. When the project was completed, a volunteer received liability relief from DEC.

Clean Water and Air

In 1996, New York voters approved the Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act which included $200 million for the mu-nicipal Environmental Restoration Program. This program recognizes that many municipalities are burdened with properties they had no hand in contaminating. Municipalities may receive funding for up to 90 percent of eligible in-vestigation and cleanup costs. They receive a release from liability and are free to market the cleaned-up properties for redevelopment. The New York State 2003 Superfund/Brownfield law created the Brownfield Cleanup Program, which offers incen-tives for private parties to redevelop brownfields. This program provides a comprehensive liability release for suc-cessful cleanup, and provides significant tax credits to offset costs associated with the cleanup and reuse of brown-field sites. Lastly, the Superfund/Brownfield law created the Brownfield Opportunity Areas Program, which provides funds to communities and community-based organizations to perform area-wide brownfield redevelopment planning. In October 2006, the New York State Environmental Board approved regulations creating an operational blueprint to implement the Superfund/Brownfields Program.

A Better New York

Under New York's brownfield programs, hundreds of contaminated properties have been cleaned up and redevel-oped, or are currently in the process. Government, businesses, and local neighborhoods are cooperating to trans-form brownfields into community assets ranging from public parks to manufacturers, sports stadiums to residential developments. By restoring brownfield sites, New Yorkers are working to protect public health and natural resources, increase job opportunities, protect open space, and revitalize neighborhoods. These efforts help to ensure that our communities become healthier and more inviting places in which to live, work and play.

Brownfield Examples:

New York benefits from many examples of successful cleanup and redevelopment of brownfields. To ensure the protection of people's health and the environment, brownfield cleanups may include removing contamination from the site; managing contamination with physical barriers such as a clean soil cover or vapor barrier; or using deed restric-tions and other institutional controls. Where appropriate, DEC requires long-term monitoring to be sure the cleanup remains protective.

Paper Mill Island Park, Baldwinsville, Onondaga County

The Paper Mill Island Park site is surrounded by the Seneca River and the New York State Barge Canal. The site was occupied by a paper mill from the mid-1800s until 1959, followed by numerous industrial/commercial enterprises through the late 1980s, when the property was abandoned. The island was donated to the Village of Baldwinsville, which recognized the potential value of the property as part of a larger waterfront revitalization project. As a result of site investigations, underground tanks and contaminants were removed, a clean soil cap was placed over the entire site, and the shoreline was stabilized to prevent erosion. The park now hosts concerts and events from May through September and has become a popular destination for residents and tourists. The park includes a world-class amphitheater, docks for boaters traveling the New York State Barge Canal, and open space with paved walkways and park benches.

Richmond County Bank Ballpark at St. George, Staten Island

The New York City Economic Development Corporation turned a contaminated rail yard in the St. George waterfront area of Staten Island into the Staten Island Yankees' minor league baseball stadium. The Richmond County Bank Ballpark is a 6,500-seat facility that has hosted hundreds of thousands of fans since opening in 2001. The stadium has created 200 jobs and more than $16 million in annual revenue and represents the centerpiece of a comprehensive economic redevelopment plan for the north shore of Staten Island. Cleanup of the contaminated waterfront area included removing three "hot spots" that contained lead and arsenic, and capping the entire site with the stadium structure, pavement, and clean soil. Deed restrictions, groundwater monitoring, and shoreline erosion control are ongoing parts of the cleanup plan.

Greyston Bakery, Yonkers, Westchester County

The Greyston Bakery has produced gourmet desserts in the City of Yonkers for more than 20 years. The bakery expanded its operations by cleaning up a brownfield site near the Hudson River. Following cleanup, a new $9 million bakery was constructed, which more than tripled the bakery's capacity and allowed the company to expand its exist-ing 50-person staff. The bakery actively recruits and hires employees who have had difficulties finding employment in the past, and uses profits to support the Greyston Foundation's other community projects. The bakery is a focal point for the community, located next to the downtown area where most employees can walk to work or use mass transit.

As part of the brownfield's remediation, the entire site needed to be capped to prevent contamination of the groundwater and, ultimately, the Hudson River. To accom-modate this, the new bakery's mechanical systems and components were designed to run overhead instead of underground.

Mitchell Park, Greenport, Suffolk County

Using resources from federal, state and local programs, the Village of Greenport redeveloped a 3.2-acre waterfront parcel that had been contaminated by a marina, shipyard and oystering activities. The village acquired the property in 1996 after the previous owner went bankrupt. Nine underground petroleum tanks were removed along with hundreds of yards of soil contaminated with petroleum and arsenic. Clean soil was placed over these areas, and the groundwater is monitored to ensure that the cleanup continues to protect people's health and the environment. To develop ideas for future site uses, the village held a design competition that attracted more than 500 submis-sions from 26 countries. The site now contains a public park, including an amphitheater, historic carousel, harbor walk, seasonal ice rink and splash park.

HealthNow site, Buffalo

HealthNow, Buffalo, Erie County

HealthNow, the parent company of BlueCross/BlueShield of Western New York, reviewed more than 130 sites and selected a downtown Buffalo brownfield for the location of its new corporate headquarters and operations center. For a hundred years, ending in 1948, the site had been used by various owners to manufacture gas from coal and oil for residential and commercial lighting, heating and cooking. As a result, the soil and groundwater had been extensively contaminated with wastes from the gas manufacturing process. Cleanup included the excavation and off-site disposal of thousands of tons of contaminated soil, and the treatment of contaminated groundwater. Construction of the new facility has begun, and will incorporate the landmark 1848 fa-cade of the original Gas Works facility on the site.

Syracuse Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems

The Syracuse Center for Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems (CoE) is constructing a new headquar-ters on a former brownfield. The 60,000-square-foot complex, expected to be completed in 2007, will be located on a 2.4-acre parcel in downtown Syracuse. Previously, the site had been the location of Midtown Plaza, an eight-story building constructed in the early 1900s as a typewriter factory for the Smith Corona Company. The contaminated Midtown Plaza building was demolished in 1999. The mission of the Syracuse CoE is to create innovations in environmental and energy technologies. It focuses on air quality, water quality, "green" buildings, renewable energy and biofuels. The Syracuse CoE is a collaborative effort led by Syracuse University with the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, SUNY Upstate Medical University, Cornell University, Clarkson University and many other public and private colleges across the state. The headquarters facility will feature additional laboratories to evaluate and showcase new technologies that im-prove environmental quality and energy efficiency in buildings and urban communities.

Larry Ennist is an environmental program specialist with DEC's Division of Environmental Remediation. He lives in Schoharie County with his wife and two children. DEC's Karen Diligent and Jim Honan contributed to this article.

Photos: Bob McGinnis, DEC