Prime sites remain out of reach as the specter of liability continues to hover over underground storage tanks.

By Roberta Maynard

It's another case of different branches of government working at cross-purposes, and this time, the losers are developers and local economies. When the brownfields bill made it through Congress at the end of December, it ensured modest reform of the existing law. Put another way, it didn't open many doors for builders. The measure fell short by failing to provide liability protection to developers of sites contaminated by petroleum products. What a loss! On the one hand are builders who, facing a shrinking supply of developable land, are on the lookout for new opportunities. At the same time, many consumers wanhomes closer to town with smaller yards and a manageable commute. Towns and cities, meanwhile, desperately want to rejuvenate tired downtowns and inner suburbs. What stands in the way of this tidy equation working out are more than a hundred thousand sites contaminated by petroleum--from closed chemical plants to abandoned neighborhood gas stations.

I say it's a matter of cross-purposes because while Congress was at work on the legislation that will keep development of these sites on the back burner, the Environmental Protection Agency was trying to get federal money into the hands of towns with storage tank problems. EPA administrator Christie Whitman announced that the agency would provide $4 million in financial assistance to clean up contamination from leaking underground storage tanks (or, as they are called, curiously, LUSTs). Under this new program, the agency will select up to 40 pilot projects and give them money to return the sites to viable use, thereby fostering redevelopment. This in effect extends a successful 10-pilot program launched in 2000. (The 10 programs are detailed on the EPA's site,

The presence of underground storage tanks (USTs) and the lack of protection under the brownfields act has significantly impaired cities' redevelopment efforts, according to EPA officials. Whitman explained that the initiative would help bridge the gap in federal coverage of such sites. But it doesn't help much. The program addresses just a small number of the nearly 200,000 sites estimated to contain underground tanks or to have been contaminated. Moreover, each project will receive only $100,000.

Similarly, protection through insurance has failed to spur much activity. Builder and developer Bernie Glieberman, president of Crosswinds Communities, in Michigan, says that insurance coverage has enabled him to transform several troublesome brownfields sites. Still, he concedes that under the new law, "There are a lot of sites that won't be cleaned. It's too bad that [the bill] didn't go all the way."

What's still lacking is a strong incentive. Almost always eyesores, and potentially dangerous to boot, these sites are roadblocks to economic revitalization and, obviously, impediments to creating housing in the very places where cities want housing to be. Typically in prime locations near urban centers, these sites can be found in every region. The largest volume of closed tanks (i.e., identified and not operational) are in California (111,094), Texas (101,364), Wisconsin (61,688), Florida (83,693), and New York (70,093). Illinois, North Carolina, Michigan, and Pennsylvania each have tanks numbering in the 50,000s.

Photo: Katherine Lambert

The NAHB called the legislation disappointing. Bruce Smith, NAHB's president, said, "These sites could have been cleaned up and turned into areas providing economic opportunity for workers, new homes for families, and cleaner neighborhoods for residents, if Congress had only been bolder."

Given that USTs are the most common type of brownfield, every state would have benefited to some extent. With a single piece of legislation, Congress could have cleared the way for developers and others to make positive changes throughout the country, changes that would help local economies while providing jobs and housing. What a boost that would have been.


BIG BUILDER Magazine, February 2002