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PlaNYC: Digging a Little Deeper into Greening the City’s Brownfields

by Worldchanging NYC local blogger, David Leon:

I was recently working the legal end of a contaminated site remediation, and the environmental consultant mentioned that if you were to dig up any given patch of dirt in New York City, you would probably find at least some low level of contamination, This would be especially true on the waterfront and canals, which were once the primary places to dump waste and other fill material. This kind of low-level contamination does seem likely, given the city’s long industrial history prior to the advent of environmental regulation.

In PlaNYC, the Bloomberg administration estimates that there are 7,600 acres of contaminated sites in the city; if combined, this would cover an area half the size of Manhattan, and there is no comprehensive study or database documenting what types of contaminants are underground where. Current brownfield cleanup programs are administered mostly at the state and federal levels. These programs generally work best for large developers of highly contaminated parcels, because of the eligibility criteria for these programs. This is illustrated by the fact that only 1,900 of the estimated 7,600 acres of contaminated sites are currently in state brownfield cleanup programs.

Furthermore, if a small or medium-sized purchaser or developer of land suspects minor contamination, current laws and brownfield programs may actually provide some incentive not to even test for potential contaminants or do any proper cleanup. Landowners also have reason to develop uses like parking lots, which minimize their own potential liability and exposure, but may not fit community needs. In this aspect, the current state of brownfield remediation has negative impacts on the availability of waterfront access, open space and affordable housing, and often runs contrary to environmental justice principles.

PlaNYC proposes an 11-step city-wide detox program

  1. Adopting on-site testing to streamline the cleanup process -- instead of sending soil samples to distant labs -- cutting costs by 30 percent or more

  2. Creating remediation guidelines specifically for NYC cleanups, accounting for the pervasive low levels of contamination existing in the city but not other parts of the state, and taking account of the fact that city drinking water comes from upstate, not ground water

  3. Establishing a city office for brownfield planning and redevelopment

  4. Expanding participation in the state’s brownfield cleanup program

  5. Creating a city program to oversee all cleanups not in the state’s program

  6. Providing incentives to lower the costs of remediation through a $15-million public-private fund

  7. Encouraging the state to release more community-based redevelopment grants

  8. Giving developers incentive to participate more in community-based planning

  9. Reaching out to communities to educate them about brownfield redevelopment

  10. Creating a citywide database of historic uses to identify potential historic brownfields

  11. Limiting legal liability of property owners who seek to redevelop brownfields that they did not pollute

These are smart measures to reach the goal of cleaning up all the city’s brownfields. Much of the action, though, remains at the state level. So the plan proposes to urge the state to:

  • Increase the staff of the appropriate offices
  • Expand eligibility for sites in existing cleanup programs
  • Amend the brownfield tax credit program
  • Release more community development grants
  • Encourage developers to work with communities
  • Pass a law limiting liability for purchasers of potentially contaminated sites.

The plan also counts on cooperation from the private sector, including developing insurance policies to protect landowners, and contributing 70 percent of the $15 million fund.

Hopefully, the state and the private sector will buy in to help the city achieve this worthy goal. It's not like we can't use the space!

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