Brownfields, abandoned contaminated industrial sites, exist throughout the country. They are attractive to private developers for building as they tend to be in urban areas, near sources of available labor, transportation routes, and served by full electricity, water, and other infrastructure. The public sector often sees building on brownfields as a benefit because this can offer cities and states the potential for economic growth while reducing the use and over-use of non-developed areas. However, the safety of brownfield sites is a concern.
Redevelopment has tied up both the public and private sectors in legal and environmental knots. Who is liable for the original pollution? How clean do the sites have to be before they can safely be redeveloped? Getting answers to such questions has become critical to the hundreds of cities nationwide that find redevelopment plans stalled. Under the State of Pennsylvania's Land Recycling Program, the knots are quickly coming undone.
The Land Recycling Program is the result of a package of laws passed by the legislature in 1995 that make redeveloping brownfields not only feasible, but, in many cases, attractive. First, the legislation established three clear standards for cleanup, depending on the site and proposed use. None of the standards calls for unattainable pristine conditions, but each protects human health and the environment. Once the site has been cleaned to meet the agreed-upon standard, the legislation releases owners and developers from liability assuming none of the principals were responsible for any of the pollution in the first place. The law extends that immunity to all financial backers of the project. The law also calls for a uniform environmental review process, with clear schedules for final approval. Offering grants to municipalities and other local authorities for environmental assessments, the legislation also provides grants and low-interest loans to parties that agree to pursue cleanups. Finally, Pennsylvania's Land Recycling Program provides technical assistance to developers interested in acquiring, cleaning, and redeveloping brownfields.
In the 16 years before the Program's inception, only 10 brownfield sites were cleaned up statewide. However, since the Program's creation, 103 sites have been cleaned, 200 more are in planning stages, and cleanups are underway in 51 of the State's 67 counties, including multimillion-dollar urban redevelopment projects in Pittsburgh, York, and other cities.