INSIDE WASHINGTON/Prospects look good for brownfields bill
This year, opposition to the legislation appears to have subsided.
Congress is inching closer toward approving comprehensive brownfields legislation that would help local governments clean up contaminated industrial sites so they might be redeveloped and put back on the tax rolls. The legislation has received widespread support from both sides of the political aisle, as well as from President George Bush. “We must reform the laws that slow the cleanup of the nation’s brownfields,” Bush told a group of mayors at a White House meeting last month.
There are between 450,000 and 600,000 brownfields sites nationwide, a significant number of which are located in urban areas. The sites range from former gas stations to abandoned factories.
So far, the Senate has spearheaded the drive to pass brownfields legislation this year. Its Environment and Public Works Committee passed a brownfields bill in March, which the full Senate is likely to approve. The House has held several committee hearings on the subject, but some Republicans have expressed concern that language in the Senate bill would allow the Environmental Protection Agency to revoke states’ authority in the cleanup process.
“I know there is a lot of interest in moving a [brownfields] bill this session,” says Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment. “The Senate is moving a little faster than we are. If the Senate bill comes to us, we will look at it and see what needs to be done.”
Bush is trying to assuage the lawmakers’ fears. Several times this year, the President has dispatched EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman to Capitol Hill to assure lawmakers that the federal government is committed to strengthening state and local brownfields programs.
“New users have been scared away by the threat of Superfund regulation and litigation,” Bush told the mayors last month. “It is time for new thinking. We will set high environmental standards, and we will protect redevelopers who meet those standards from federal liability.”
Last year, brownfields legislation was successfully blocked by Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) who argued that Superfund reform needed to be addressed as a whole. This year, the opposition appears to have subsided, much to the relief of local leaders.
“This is a positive sign of Congress’ efforts to work with local governments and partner on issues of significant importance, especially to many of our cities,” says Charlotte, N.C., Mayor Patrick McCrory, the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Energy and Environment Committee.
Metropolitan King County (Wash.) Councilmember Jane Hague says the brownfields legislation is “an enormous opportunity” to help improve the environment and curb urban sprawl. “There are few, if any, other ways to more immediately improve our environment, revitalize our urban cores and combat the sprawling development patterns that tax our citizens and community resources,” says Hague, who also serves as president of the National Association of Counties.
Components of the Senate bill include:
authorization of $50 million per year for state cleanup programs and creation of appropriate limits on federal enforcement in deference to state programs;
authorization of $150 million in federal funding to pay for assessment and cleanup of brownfields sites; and
protection of prospective buyers, landowners whose property abuts brownfields sites and innocent owners of brownfields sites.
“The vast majority of people interested in brownfields support the approach embodied in this bill because it is better than what is out there today,” says Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), a chief sponsor of the Senate bill.
The author is Washington correspondent for American City & County.