EPA Pushing Superfund Sites Toward Redevelopment

By Sylvia Carignan

The Environmental Protection Agency is pushing more than 30 contaminated sites into the spotlight to draw in potential land investors and developers, but some of those involved with the sites say they wish the agency would do more to make them financially attractive.

The EPA’s newest list of contaminated sites, released Jan. 17, promotes properties with the potential for redevelopment. But city officials and land-use attorneys are looking for more specific action and incentives from the federal agency than the agency’s promise to put redevelopment training, tools, and resources toward the sites.

The EPA will have to do more to entice investors, Linda R. Shaw, partner at Knauf Shaw LLP in Rochester, N.Y., told Bloomberg Environment.

“The remedy ends up being interim,” she said. “It doesn’t make the site typically clean enough to make somebody feel comfortable buying it.”

Sites Spread Across Country

The sites include the U.S. Smelter and Lead Refinery Superfund Site in East Chicago, Ind., Quendall Terminal in Washington state, and contaminated groundwater sites in Libby, Mont. The sites are spread out across the country and EPA’s 10 regional offices.

Many of the sites still are on the National Priorities List. Some are portions of a superfund site still undergoing remediation.

Potential investors are especially wary of putting money into superfund sites. “Banks still don’t feel comfortable when the S-word is part of a site,” Shaw said.

A spokesperson for the agency didn’t immediately respond to questions from Bloomberg Environment. The agency wants to “successfully integrate Superfund sites back into communities across the country,” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in a news release.

Congress has taken an interest in Pruitt’s plans to modernize superfund. A House and Energy Commerce subcommittee on environment was scheduled to conduct a hearing on the issue Jan. 18.

State Model?

The benefits of New York’s Voluntary Cleanup Program, originally built to draw developers to contaminated brownfields, recently opened up to state superfund sites. Shaw said the program could be a model for the EPA to follow.

The program provides incentives to interested parties if the party agrees to pay for cleanup. The incentives are tax credits, liability release, a guarantee the interested party won’t have to remediate contamination off their property, and clear state cleanup standards.

Similar cleanup standards don’t exist at the federal level, and interested parties who take on superfund sites are likely to find more contamination than they anticipated.

“The problem is how do you quantify the [financial] risk, and that’s what investors are interested in,” Shaw said. “You don’t know what it’s going to cost until you start digging.”

But, Shaw said, contaminated sites would benefit from having a redevelopment or reuse plan.

“Whatever state the superfund site is in, there should be some kind of collaboration with that state agency [and] the EPA to actually come up with a project on that site,” she said. By incorporating cleanup with reuse, “the project can actually help make the remediation less expensive.”

Quendall Terminal

The Quendall Terminal Superfund Site in Renton, Wash., is part of Pruitt’s Jan. 17 list. The site was a creosote manufacturing facility where coal tar and creosote have been released into soil, water, and sediment, according to the EPA.

The city of Renton is waiting for the EPA to make a decision about the site’s final remedy, said Vanessa Dolbee, planning manager for the city.

“We’ve done pretty much everything we can do to get the site positioned for redevelopment, in terms of all the land use entitlements,” Dolbee told Bloomberg Environment in December.

The city council has approved the construction of mixed-use development, including 40,000 square feet for commercial use and almost 700 residential units. The developer needs building permits, but the project is on hold until the EPA acts.

“It’s completely out of our hands because it’s at the federal level,” she said.

The site also is on Pruitt’s Dec. 8 list of contaminated sites that need “immediate, intense action,” which acknowledges the EPA’s need to quickly determine the best remedy for the site.

Making Progress

The list originates from Pruitt’s superfund task force, which last year released recommendations to make the program more efficient.

One of the main goals of those recommendations was to get contaminated sites back into use by getting potentially responsible parties or third parties to invest in redevelopment.

The EPA’s Superfund Redevelopment Initiative assesses the benefits of superfund site reuse—including job creation and increases in property values—by site, regionally, and nationally.

The initiative is tracking nearly 500 superfund sites in reuse, which house over 6,600 businesses, according to the agency.

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