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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

June 1998

Cleaning up contaminated land in urban areas is the first step in restoring our cities and neighborhoods. © Robert Queen

A way from urban decay

Finding value in run-down real estate.

Erika Kluetmeier

Cleaning up contaminated land in urban areas is the first step in restoring our cities and neighborhoods.

© Robert Queen
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Brownfields," a term coined in the 1990s, will continue in the forefront of environmental recovery for a decade or more. Brownfields describes contaminated lands, typically in blighted city neighborhoods, that have been abandoned or barely used for years. There is renewed interest in cleaning these properties because they can rekindle community and economic recovery, as well as restoring the environment.

As urban sprawl swallows up farmland and "greenfields" at an alarming rate, the benefits of restoring downtown brownfields are especially attractive. Their location is key to their future success. Brownfield restorations not only clean up the environment and protect public health of city residents, they create jobs where people need them, provide workplaces people can reach on public transportation, restore the property value, and enhance surrounding property. Moreover a network of roads, electric lines, pipelines and sewers already serves these areas.

To keep up with growing interest in brownfield recovery, the Department of Natural Resources' programs evolved too, but change took time.

It started in 1978. A state Spill Law was enacted, mainly to train regional teams in Wisconsin to respond quickly when spills threatened streams, rivers and lakes. It was also the era of widespread awareness of hazardous chemical wastes that posed more serious threats to people AND the environment. This marked the beginning of emergency planning to prepare regional hazardous materials or "hazmat" teams, spur soil cleanup and prevent groundwater contamination from hazardous substances.

"At that time, we had one person in the DNR to handle spills from a wide variety of sources – derailed trains, accidental spills at businesses, or leaks from gasoline storage tanks," says Mark Giesfeldt, director of the DNR's Remediation and Redevelopment program. "We even responded when nine dead pigs were found floating down the Pecatonica River."

Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency took the reigns in 1980, creating the nationwide Superfund program to provide federal funds to clean up health threats at the country's worst hazardous waste sites. By late 1983, 20 Wisconsin places were named Superfund sites; eventually 41 former industrial sites and dumping grounds in the state would be placed on the list.

Though its goals were admirable, Superfund spent too much money on protracted legal battles to pinpoint who would pay for cleanups, rather than conducting actual investigations and restoring contaminated land. The state started looking for faster and cheaper solutions.

The 1983 Abandoned Landfill Program and the 1984 Environmental Repair Law provided state money for cleanups when a "responsible party" could not be fingered to pick up the tab to restore the environment. To complement the 1984 package, a landmark state law set goals to prevent groundwater contamination and restore contaminated groundwater to safe uses.

In the mid-1980s, the cleanup workload grew tremendously. DNR began hiring private consultants to investigate and clean up serious contamination problems. Over the years, the Environmental Repair Fund has increased to $3.8 million and $21 million in funding autority. Federal rules in 1988 required owners of service stations and even home fuel tank owners to replace or remove buried fuel tanks by 1998.

"Once owners started removing their tanks, we found that the old tanks were often corroded and many of them had leaked gasoline into soil and groundwater," says Giesfeldt. The tanks were everywhere – gas stations, homes, businesses and airports, he says.

The biggest explosion came as growth opportunity to environmental engineering firms.

The Petroleum Environmental Cleanup Fund Act of 1989, or PECFA, provided funds to investigate and cleanup gasoline contamination. The number of cleanups proceeded so quickly that at its peak even DNR employed 110 people to oversee environmental investigations and cleanups, and provide technical assistance to consultants. By the early 1990s, a backlog of thousands of contaminated sites needed cleanup and almost as many consultants lined up to do the job. Thus far 7,000 of 16,000 leaking tank sites on record have been recovered.

Cleanup requirements that had been scattered among groundwater laws, waste laws and spill laws were recodified from 1991-95 and Wisconsin set some of the nation's first soil cleanup standards to agree when a "contaminated" site would be clean enough to be reclassified as "recovered" and suitable for new development. So many sites need attention that Wisconsin's laws now allow some lower cost, more time-consuming cleanup methods. Even these sites will eventually be recovered and groundwater quality restored.

Which brings us back to brownfields. Cities and money lenders face several losses when businesses fail, and aging factories move or close their doors. If a bankrupt company walks away from its plant, local governments and lenders can "inherit" contaminated property they did not cause and cannot readily sell. The Land Recycling Law of 1994 was designed to keep these properties from remaining abandoned eyesores. The law requires the new owner will be provided an estimate of how much cleanup will cost and the owner must agree to make those repairs. Once the property is restored, new owners are guaranteed that they will not be held financially responsible if cleanup standards change, if the approved cleanup remedy fails or if old contamination is subsequently discovered.

"This liability protection helps reassure buyers during property transactions," says Darsi Foss, a team leader in charge of the DNR Land Recycling programs. "Purchasers want this added insurance that their property is clean and sellers use the cleanup certificate to attract buyers."

DNR's reorganization in September 1995 consolidated land recovery projects into the Bureau for Remediation and Redevelopment (R&R), which provides one point of contact for customers undertaking cleanups. One innovative R&R service is inspecting tax-delinquent brownfields on behalf of local governments to confirm whether contamination exists, pinpointing its location, and providing estimated cleanup costs to potential buyers. After DNR staff assessed an old tannery in Milwaukee, a neighborhood business owner bought the site, cleaned it up and expanded his business, creating over 40 jobs for area residents.

"Our customers help shape our program as it looks today," says Giesfeldt. "We rely on neighborhoods to identify properties, bring together partners, and secure cleanup and redevelopment money," he says.

Foss calls the Milwaukee the tannery case a "perfect example." "The neighborhood and a local health center rallied to get city, state and federal aid, and find a suitable buyer," she says. "They knew what they wanted the site to become, they wanted a new business that created jobs and that's what they got."

Progress will continue. Legislators have approved programs that provide financial assistance to investigate and clean-up contaminated properties; the benefits of which are estimated to be worth more than $100 million. That's plenty of potential to green-up brownfields and revitalize neighborhoods in the process.

Erika Kluetmeier is senior public affairs manager for DNR's Water Division.