Would Brownfields Smell as Sweet by Any Other Name?

Nothing has quite caught the fancy of environmental professionals as the concept of developing “brownfields.” The term refers to restoring industrial properties to productive use by overcoming the stigma associated with moderate environmental contamination caused by previous site uses.

Stringent environmental regulations to govern discharges and spills of hazardous substances are a relatively recent phenomenon. For more than a century, industrial users of chemicals have been allowed (or even encouraged) to manage foundry sands, tar residues, slag, solvents, lead-based paints and similar wastes on or near their industrial property, in ways that today would be prohibited by regulation.

For older industrial urban areas, the result has been a collection of former industrial properties tainted by past practices, shunned by corporate real estate managers and financial institutions, surrounded by fences and weeds, and depressing redevelopment efforts. Given the strict and retroactive liability for cleanup imposed under the Federal Superfund law, and the uncertain regulatory requirements (and thus cost) of cleanup, it is not hard to understand why the private sector is unwilling to lead the effort to redevelop brownfields.

Of course, one person’s problem is another’s opportunity. Almost by definition, brownfields sites are near transportation and support hubs, in areas which would have great value by virtue of their prime location, but for their environmental condition. The challenge is to find innovative ways to integrate site development with environmental remediation.

Federal and state agencies have begun to address the brownfields problem with a series of initiatives. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a series of new policies and initiatives in 1995 to promote redevelopment of brownfields areas. These include increased use of covenants not to use Superfund to sue developers trying to redevelop tainted lands, and new policies not to pursue innocent landowners affected by migration beneath their property of contaminated groundwater from offsite.

Other initiatives by Federal and state agencies include:

  • Risk-based cleanup goals developed using realistic exposure scenarios and site uses. There is no need to make dirt clean enough for children to eat if children will never be at the site (for industrial properties) or if children cannot reach the dirt (because it is isolated beneath a parking lot, a building, or clean fill).
  • Voluntary remediation programs which provide oversight and state approval of remediation, and which provide some certainty that state enforcement action will not be taken against site owners that have completed remedial work.
  • Grants and incentives for development of brownfields.

Public-private partnerships are underway throughout North America to help reclaim brownfields. A few examples are summarized below.

  • Two-dozen city blocks near downtown Portsmouth, Virginia, make up the PortCentre project. Bounded by deepwater ports and an interstate highway, and served by existing infrastructure, PortCentre is prime real estate for commercial and light industrial uses. However, the Abex Foundry Superfund site also is adjacent to PortCentre, and soils containing elevated concentration s of lead have been detected in several areas. Following an extensive statistical sampling program, the City’s redevelopment agencies demonstrated that covering surface soils with asphalt, buildings, and shallow fill would protect human health and the environment. Development is underway, providing needed tax revenues and employment for the City and its residents.
  • Vancouver, British Columbia, hosted the World’s Fair on a portion of what is now called Pacific Place, one of North America’s most ambitious real estate developments. A number of industrial concerns had previously used the property, including two manufactured gas plants and a railroad locomotive maintenance facility. A challenge for site development was to use environmental conditions as a criterion for site uses. Thus, open spaces were designed with special vaults to hold moderately-contaminated soils excavated from different portions of the site. More elaborate alternatives were used for removal and destruction of highly contaminated soils. Today, the site hosts a variety of commercial, residential, and recreational land uses.
  • For years, Fontana, California, hosted the only integrated steel mill west of the Mississippi (Kaiser’s Fontana works). Residual wastes from steel manufacture were managed onsite, with acres of land devoted to the disposal of materials such as slag, and coking tar. When the mill was closed, the challenge became how to phase site cleanup to allow site development revenues to offset remediation costs. A combination of innovative approaches and flexible management has produced results at the site. Coking wastes have been addressed using advanced technologies. Much of the slag has been reclaimed for use as a construction aggregate. A 500-acre portion of the site was remediated in a six-month period to make way for the development of a major automobile racetrack facility by the Roger Penske group.
  • Phoenix, Arizona is a major-league city. Its new baseball franchise, the Diamondbacks, will play in a downtown stadium constructed in an area that previously was used by a variety of commercial and industrial entities. A parcel-by-parcel assessment of historical uses was conducted to identify environmental issues presented by site development. As a result, a comprehensive strategy for integrating stadium construction with remediation requirements was prepared, thus helping to assure that the schedule for this important project would not be disrupted by hazardous substance surprises.

Each of the examples listed above was backed by the strong commitment of a local government intent on restoring the economic value of a previously important real estate asset, and in using redevelopment as a catalyst for the revitalization of the surrounding area.

SCS Engineers is an environmental engineering and consulting firm with offices throughout North America. The firm was involved in each of the brownfields listed above (and in scores of others), and includes among its clients’ several dozen successful redevelopment agencies.

For additional information, including copies of recent publications on subjects relating to Brownfields and remediation, please contact your nearest SCS Engineers’ regional office:


Michael W. McLaughlin, P.E.
Senior Vice President
11260 Roger Bacon Drive
Reston, Virginia 20190
(800) 767-4727
Internet: https://www.scsengineers.com