Big Green Brownout

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If you clean it, they will build. The idea behind the new state brownfields bill is that well-written new rules for these contaminated plots of land will actually encourage developers to clean up and build on former industrial sites, especially those in poor urban neighborhoods.

This bill was laboriously crafted by an unlikely coalition of militant environmental justice activists, developers, large foundations and banks. After two years of what one environmentalist called “extremely painful, sometimes round-the-clock negotiations,” the compromises were hammered out, so that looser clean-up standards could be applied to some contaminated sites as long as they are being redeveloped for less sensitive projects like factories or parking lots. Finally, in late March, Brooklyn Assemblymember Vito Lopez introduced the compromise bill in the New York State Assembly.

There, it got torpedoed by the big greens. As the bill began making the rounds, the Sierra Club, the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition and NYPIRG fired off a salvo of letters to assembly members, asking them not to sign on.

The Sierra Club’s main complaint with the bill is that it would weaken state Superfund regulations by allowing new, more flexible standards for contaminated plots of lands to be applied to some of the dirtiest sites. John Stouffer, legislative director of the Sierra Club’s Atlantic Chapter, also charged that the bill’s monitoring provisions are inadequate: “It’s a toothless tiger–there’s no real threat behind the enforcement program.”

The move came as a shock to the bill’s backers, who had worked closely with some of the organizations that were now attacking it. “Almost before it was a bill, people were asking to sign on–and meanwhile, the Sierra Club was going around trying to get people not to!” fumes Lopez, who says the big greens never contacted him with their objections. Bill supporters counter that its restrictions will keep developers from abusing the looser standards.

According to environmental lawyer Michael B. Gerrard, author of a two-volume survey of brownfields laws nationwide, if looser standards mean more sites get cleaned up the compromise is worth it.

“Is the question, does brownfields legislation mean that sites will be cleaned up to lower standards than they would otherwise?” he asks. “Or does it mean that sites that wouldn’t get cleaned otherwise will be cleaned up? I believe that the latter is the real issue. All things being equal, cleaner is usually better. Inaction and continuing ignoring the problem is the real curse.”