Written by Gwyneth K. Shaw
Nearly every Connecticut community is laced with sites tainted by contaminants like lead, mercury, asbestos, PCBs, or petroleum.
These sites, mostly vacant and abandoned, were once bustling gun, textile or hat mills, car repair shops—even the neighborhood dry cleaners – that employed locals and kept the economy sizzling.
Since 1994, close to $60 million has been spent by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to help rid communities of these so-called brownfield sites, including close to $12 million for removing or containing pollutants. But to date only 19 have been completely cleaned and the cases closed, according to the EPA, hardly making a dent in a vast inventory estimated to be in the thousands.
Gwyneth K. Shaw Photo
The former Baltic Mills complex in Sprague, now a brownfield site.
The shuttered mills or buildings on these brownfield sites pose a host of public safety issues for municipalities that must ensure that they are secure. Over the years, many have been set on fire, some more than once, spewing toxins into the air, ground and nearby rivers.
Local officials have worked tirelessly recruiting developers and searching for seed money from the federal and state governments to get brownfield sites back on the local tax rolls.
But progress has been slow, often taking years.
A review of the EPA’s efforts in Connecticut found:
• Sites that get assessment money – to determine the extent of the pollution – often wait years to get cleanup funding. That adds time to a process that’s already lengthy because of the meticulous cleanup of these contaminated sites.
• The state, not the EPA, is responsible for overseeing all cleanups. That’s because there is no federal standard for what constitutes a cleanup, leaving states to set their own rules.
• Connecticut, in turn, delegates most of its authority on cleanup projects to private engineers, who are rarely fully audited—something critics say weakens project oversight.
In Connecticut, federal and state money has spurred some major success stories, such as the Brass Mill Center mall in Waterbury, which turned 90 contaminated acres into a 1.2 million-square foot shopping center; Bridgeport’s Harbor Yard sports arena; and the Killingly Commons, a big-box retail complex in the east.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has pledged $50 million over two years to identify and clean brownfield sites – with a promise to continue funding. The EPA, which budgeted roughly $170 million nationwide this year, offers help to states, cities, towns and regional partnerships to get projects moving with grants, loans and other funding.
Experts say the new state money and programs are signs of progress. But they remain wary about the way the money is spent and monitored. Recently, in Seymour, how a $200,000 state loan for a brownfield project is being spent has drawn fire from town officials.
There are also concerns about the environmental and public health impact of leaving the majority of sites dormant.
“There are so many chemicals in our society, and having these highly toxic sites is clearly a hazard and needs to be taken care of,” said Roger Reynolds, senior attorney at the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, an advocacy group. “That said, we’ve struggled over the past 30 years or so with how expensive that is and how difficult it is.”
The chemicals on these sites pose “real and continuing hazards,” Reynolds said. And failing to redevelop brownfields also encourages sprawl, leading to new pollution.
Economic development – especially revitalizing poor, blighted communities—is what drives the brownfield program in Connecticut and other states. Most communities secure a developer, and then go to the state and the EPA for funding to support their project.
“It’s not one versus the other,” said Graham Stevens, the brownfields coordinator for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, in discussing the balance between economic and environmental issues.
“I think economic development is an excellent catalyst for environmental remediation,” added Stevens, “The brownfields projects, at the end of the day, are real estate transactions and real estate projects, and if the development has no likelihood of success, that process will likely not result in a cleanup. The cleanup will have to come at another time through other means.”
While there isn’t enough money to clean up every parcel, Stevens said the state is trying to help educate local officials about what’s available, so they can take advantage of any opportunity.
DEEP officials decide whether they want the state to maintain control of site cleanup or whether to pass it to a licensed environmental professional, or LEP. About 80 percent of brownfields are managed by LEPs, Stevens said. Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Ohio use a similar system.
The state has to sign off on work by LEPs, and can reopen a case within 24 months if there are concerns about the work. That process worries environmentalists, who fear shoddy cleanups won’t be discovered until after the two years is up.
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