April, 1999
Citizens' Report on Brownfields
The Center for Public Environmental Oversight & the Pacific Studies Center Volume I, Number 2


In the President's fiscal year (FY) 2000 budget, EPA proposes to widen the scope of activities funded under its Brownfields program without increasing funding. The proposed appropriation for Brownfields is supposed to rise by a minuscule amount, from $91,538,900 in fiscal year 1999 to $91,667,500.

The supporting language says: "In 2000, the Agency will fund 50 additional assessment demonstration pilots and supplement 50 existing assessment pilots to communities.... Beginning in 2000, the Agency will provide funding to states for Brownfields site assessment activities and to facilitate communication between Brownfields pilots and State environmental authorities. To further enhance a community's capacity to respond the Brownfields redevelopment, the Agency will also make 70 awards to capitalize Brownfields Cleanup Revolving Loan Pilots (BCRLP) to communities completing their Brownfields Site Assessment Demonstration Pilot activities. EPA will fund 10 job training pilots for community residents and will provide $3.0 million to NIEHS to support minority worker training and augment the communities' capacities to clean up Brownfields sites."

Though the Brownfields program itself enjoys wide, bi-partisan support, its FY2000 funding may once again be tied up in the larger debate over Superfund reauthorization.

by Lenny Siegel

Recently I attended a meeting where proponents of state brownfields legislation called for tax incentives and other subsidies to encourage brownfields cleanup and redevelopment. The arguments were familiar: A small subsidy can encourage the reuse of long dormant property, creating jobs, business opportunities, and direct tax revenue in long blighted areas.

Unfortunately, unless such subsidies are carefully designed, brownfields activity can add insult to injury, forcing out -- like the urban removal programs of the 50's and 60's -- the people and businesses that have long endured the deteriorated social and environmental conditions of the community in which the brownfields lie. That is, seemingly positive brownfields programs can promote gentrification.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, where property is intrinsically valuable, any effort to clean up contamination, crime, or other blight usually forces out long-time residents and businesspeople, particularly if they rent their property. Virtually any long-developed property in the region is within commuting distance of high-paying jobs (for highly educated people) in the San Francisco financial district or Silicon Valley.

Untargeted brownfields subsidies remind me of another tax break, the tax deductions for home-ownership. Originally designed to promote home-ownership, this extremely well-entrenched provision of state and federal tax codes actually penalizes low-income people who wish to buy homes. That's because higher-income people get greater tax benefits from deductions because they are in higher tax brackets. For many years, absentee landlords reaped such enormous tax benefits from the purchase of residential rental property that many regularly re-sold property to increase those advantages. I believe that recent tax-law changes have limited absentee tax breaks, but people in lower tax brackets still have trouble competing against more affluent homebuyers.

I am not suggesting that the mortgage tax deduction be eliminated. Rather, we should use its lessons to try to avoid similar mistakes. Tax breaks and other subsidies should be evaluated upon their differential impact. We should beware of their self-perpetuating nature: Even if they don't serve their announced purpose, they might, like the mortgage deduction, create a massive constituency with an interest in maintaining the subsidies.

Brownfields development incentives, therefore, should be targeted to people who have lived, worked, or operated businesses in Brownfields areas for minimum lengths of time. This can be done directly, or they can be made available to intermediaries on the condition that the benefits be transferred to people from the area. Otherwise, brownfields subsidies will work against one their announced purposes: revitalizing communities.

by Michael B. Taylor

A national voluntary, consensus standard called the "Standard Guide for the Process of Sustainable Brownfields Redevelopment" has been developed through a task group organized by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). The task group not only involved environmental professionals, lending institutions, developers and Fortune 500 executives, but it included other major stakeholders in brownfields redevelopment from community and environmental groups, the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), state agencies, and city governments. ASTM is a private professional association known, among other things, for setting standards for environmental assessment and risk-based corrective action.

Brownfields redevelopment can be a complex process involving interrelated financial, legal, environmental, and community development issues, so the Brownfields Task Group developed a framework to ensure that all of the major components of the Brownfields redevelopment process are considered. It provides guidance for liability management, community involvement, and corrective action. The Task Group's goal has been to provide a process, which Brownfields stakeholders may choose to follow, to streamline Brownfields redevelopment while promoting sustainable community development.

The framework is described in the "Standard Guide to the Process of Sustainable Brownfields Development," which was finalized in September, 1998 at an ASTM meeting in Austin, Texas. It establishes minimum criteria for implementing a sustainable Brownfields redevelopment. The "Standard Guide" describes a highly flexible and easily adaptable framework that can be applied at any stage during the Brownfields redevelopment process. It provides a mechanism to move the Brownfields redevelopment process forward while maintaining an understanding of the economic realities surrounding many of these properties. The "Standard Guide" is intended to supplement existing guidance and provide support where there may not be any. It is intended that public, private, non-profit, and community developers use this document to guide them through the process.

The Sustainable Brownfields Redevelopment Process is a voluntary effort that actively engages property owners, developers, government agencies, and the community in conducting corrective action, economic evaluation, and other actions to promote the long-term productive reuse of a Brownfields property. Productive reuse of Brownfields properties reduces the need to develop new land by satisfying the needs of the current stakeholders without compromising the ability to satisfy the needs of the future generations.

However, a critical component of successful Brownfields redevelopment is the involvement of the individuals, organizations, and other entities that directly affect or are directly affected by the Brownfields property or its redevelopment. These stakeholders include, but are not limited to, owners, buyers, developers, lenders, insurers, government agencies, and community groups. In addition, successful Brownfields redevelopment needs to incorporate environmental, regulatory, community, and transactional issues.

While in many cases environmental issues may be a major concern, Brownfields redevelopment is not strictly an environmental issue. Brownfields redevelopment not only requires the protection of public health and environment, but it also needs to be economically viable and beneficial to the community.

The risk-based decision process for corrective action recognizes the potential future land use of the proposed Brownfields redevelopment, the receptors, and potential exposure pathways associated with the new use in determining the appropriate endpoints for corrective action and the criteria for no further corrective action. By defining these criteria, potential environmental and financial risks related to future changes in the use of the redeveloped property can be identified and evaluated.

Prevention is included as a continuing and significant element of the process necessary to minimize future impacts from industrial or other activities on the property. Communication is necessary to educate and involve the stakeholders that are or may be impacted by the risk management decisions related to the property. Indemnification may be necessary to address the concerns raised by other stakeholders with respect to actual or perceived current and future financial liabilities related to the corrective action at the property. The Standard Guide provides guidance on property assessment, risk determination, remedial action alternative evaluation, and risk communication.

In summary, the ASTM "Standard Guide" is a voluntary, consensus document developed by a broad range of stakeholders to provide guidance regarding Brownfields redevelopment. It offers support for a streamlined redevelopment process in which all stakeholders have continued access to the decision-making on both cleanup and redevelopment. By addressing the concerns of all such stakeholders, the "Standard Guide" is designed to ensure a sustainable redevelopment process.

Michael Taylor was chairman of the ASTM task group responsible for the development of the brownfields standard. He is President of Vita Nuova LLc., which offers a variety of services related to Brownfields Redevelopment. Vita Nuova can be reached by e-mail at taylorm@pcnet.com or by U.S. mail at Vita Nuova, 97 Head of Meadow, Newtown, CT 06470.

Non-members of ASTM may purchase the "Standard Guide to the Process of Sustainable Brownfields Development" for $21 from ASTM, 100 Barr Harbor Drive, West Conshohocken, PA, 19428; http://www.astm.org; or 610/832-9585.


The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), representing local public health officials in almost 3,000 U.S. communities, has submitted comments worth noting to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) on the latter agency's draft version of "Healthy People 2010."

NACCHO writes, "Our concerns fall in two areas: the need for balance among environmental and personal health objectives in the document and the need to move toward a process for identifying health priorities that starts with identified community health concerns, rather than limiting the process to (a) categories for which there is present federal funding and (b) categories for which the human health impacts are well-documented...." Since the next Healthy People document "will dictate funding streams and serve as a catalyst for many state and local prioritization processes," NACCHO suggests, "it is imperative that [Healthy People 2020, the next version of the ODPHP document] accurately reflect and address health concerns of local communities."

NACCHO adds, "Engaging community residents in a dialogue about their concerns would help to enhance the [Healthy People 2020] process and result in a 'bottoms up' approach rather than the current 'top down' model." NACCHO submitted, with its comments, a description of its Community Environmental Health Assessment process, now being piloted in ten communities across the U.S.

To illustrate the value that community input adds, NACCHO compiled a table comparing the findings of a local Environmental Health Roundtable held in November, 1998 in Ingham County, Michigan, with the issues listed in the draft Healthy People 2010 Objectives for Environmental Health. To some degree the differences between the two lists reflect different ways of describing or categorizing the same problems.

However, one Ingham County issue, "Social nuisances: odors and noise," shows the added value of community input. It's easy to see why government scientists choose not to focus on nuisance issues that have no documented "health risk." It's also easy to see why they should pay attention to those issues where the public flags them.


On January 11, 1999, before the American Institute of Architects, Vice-President Gore announced a new federal initiative to combat urban sprawl. This new initiative, if actually funded, will complement federal Brownfields programs. Gore has found an issue that resonates with voters in central cities, suburbs, and rural areas, regardless of their party or ideology, but he may not find Republicans in Congress willing to increase federal responsibility for solving the problem.

Gore identified some the problems associated with sprawl: "In many older communities, walkable main streets have emptied out, leaving a nighttime vacuum filled with crime and disorder. As I noted at the Brookings Institution last summer, the sprawl that has developed around our cities has transformed easy suburbs into lonely cul-de-sacs, so distant from commercial centers that if a family wants an affordable house, a commuting parent often gets home too late to read a child a bedtime story. Even worse, after all those hours stuck in traffic, the freedom of the open road can explode into commuting-induced road rage. . .. Development has become something to be opposed instead of welcomed; people move out to the suburbs to make their lives, only to find they are playing leapfrog with bulldozers."

Gore announced the "Livability Agenda for the 21st Century," the centerpiece of which is $700 million in new tax credits for state and local bonds. Those tax credits are supposed to leverage nearly $10 billion in investments over the next five years. Gore stated, "These new 'Better America Bonds' will help communities reconnect to the land and water around them, preserve open spaces for future generations, build and renovate parks, improve water quality, and enhance economic competitiveness by redeveloping old factories known as Brownfields."

Gore lumped numerous other programs, some of which already exist, into the proposed initiative

  • $6.1 billion for public transit, "the single highest investment in public transit in history"
  • $1.6 billion "for state and local efforts to reduce air pollution and ease traffic congestion"
  • $50 million for the new Regional Connections initiative "to aid in the development of truly regional game plans for smarter growth"
  • $10 million "to encourage school districts to involve the whole community in planning and designing new schools"
  • "nearly $40 million to provide communities with easy-to-use information and technical assistance to develop strategies for smarter growth"

Gore concluded, "With the steps we are announcing today, we are taking citizens' concerns to the top of the national agenda. With this, which is by far the single largest investment in smart growth and sound community planning in America's history -- we will help you build what we hear you are asking for, and what is no less than you and your families deserve: livable communities, comfortable suburbs, vibrant cities, and, for your grandchildren's well-being and for their grandchildren's too, green spaces all around and in between."

If Gore's attention is sustained, he will bring political focus to an issue that is not only perceived as important by typical Americans, but which has major implications beyond "livability." Sprawl wastes natural resources. Sprawl forces the inefficient uses of government money at all levels.

Unfortunately, Gore did not explain how the tax credits, transportation investments, and smaller programs will combat sprawl. The federal government will defer to the land use decisions of local government. Without carefully developed guidance, local governments could use "Better America Bonds" to promote greenfield development. State and regional agencies could subsidize commuter rail lines, rather than re-design more compact communities. Brownfields redevelopment could accelerate gentrification.

Furthermore, the scale of this "single largest investment" is minuscule when measured against the routine national investment in metropolitan infrastructure and planning. The new, yet-to-be funded programs are small compared to the vast range of existing programs and tax loopholes that subsidize the spread of metropolitan areas.

In other words, much more work needs to be done to transform Vice-President Gore's welcome generalities into programs that will even slow the spread of suburban sprawl. Perhaps some of that work is already being done within the White House and the federal agencies. Now is the time for the architects of the Livability initiative to take their ideas out to communities to see whether they're likely to help solve problems that Americans finally seem to agree need to be addressed.