The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 13, 1999 (Reprinted with permission)
Rules let contaminants be covered, not cleaned
By Bob Fernandez
It's white and gooey and described in a consultant's study as having the consistency of toothpaste and a high asbestos content.
A few years ago, this former brick factory's processing lagoon in Plymouth Township, a six-foot-deep pool that measures 50 by 100 feet, would have been an environmental-cleanup nightmare.
The solution today? Pave it over. Soon, it will be an office and retail center.
A similar scenario has already unfolded in North Philadelphia, where an oil-saturated former fuel depot has become three acres of concrete and macadam, upon which sits an Asian food warehouse and a parking lot.
Welcome to the new world of environmental protection. Many states, under the banner of so-called brownfield laws, have dramatically loosened cleanup regulations and standards in recent years to spur development, or sales, of contaminated land.
Initially conceived, and sold to the public, as aids to redevelopment of abandoned urban factories that blight cities, the purpose of the brownfield laws was to put the property back on the tax rolls and halt sprawl. But the laws extended the looser regulations and certain legal protections to suburban and rural land, too.
This property ranges from telephone-pole sites contaminated with PCBs to abandoned rail yards polluted with heavy metals to car lots, gas stations and dry cleaners tainted with chemicals.
This has been possible because, in the last several years, the federal government has relinquished most oversight of contaminated property in the nation -- except the most dangerous and contaminated Superfund sites.
State officials say the new standards, developed in the last several years, still protect the public from carcinogens and other toxic materials, but are more realistic than what the Environmental Protection Agency had required.
And, indeed, many others also believe that the environmental regulations were written in a way that made them onerous and almost impossible to satisfy, resulting in multimillion-dollar cleanups as companies were forced to cart truckload after truckload of contaminated dirt from a property.
But now some worry that the new government attitude has gone the other way and given companies too much latitude to sweep their contaminants under the rug.
"They may remove some toxic material on the surface, but they will leave what's in the ground in the ground, which basically means it's there for future generations," said Jeff Schmidt, lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Sierra Club. "Eventually, somebody will have to clean it up.
"I would call that a coverup, not a cleanup." Schmidt said Pennsylvania is weakening environmental regulations in an attempt to compete with other states for jobs.
Not so, said Denise K. Chamberlain, deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. "We're looking at cutting away some of the red tape." Chamberlain said Pennsylvania has developed a "holistic" approach to environmental cleanup. "There is an awful lot of momentum and energy with the program," she said.
State agencies have used powers in the brownfield laws to draft their own risk-exposure limits to carcinogens and to adopt controversial environmental cleanup methods."Capping," the technical term for paving over and fencing off dangerous pollutants to protect the public, is now widely used in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Brownfield laws also include broad provisions protecting new property owners and lenders from lawsuits over potential hidden, massive pollution problems in the future. This removes the threat of new property owners getting socked with a multimillion-dollar cleanup bills for pollution that may have existed on the land for decades.
Pennsylvania has thousands of contaminated properties. So far, about 730 have been certified under the Land Recycling Act, the name of the state's brownfield law, as complying with new standards and considered free of environmental liability.
The number is partially inflated because the locations of 140 telephone poles, most of them in northeast Pennsylvania, individually qualified for the program. The ground around the poles had been polluted with PCBs.
DEP officials say the program got off to a slow start because property owners distrusted the agency and did not want to disclose the pollution on their property, fearing fines or other enforcement action.
Participation has picked up in the last six months, they said.
Property owners in Pennsylvania must advertise their environmental cleanup in local newspapers. In New Jersey, 1,130 properties have participated in the brownfields program, which was signed into law by the governor in early 1998. This includes 48 properties in Gloucester, 87 in Camden, and 49 in Burlington Counties.
On the Hudson River in the New Jersey town of West New York, a former rail yard polluted with spilled gasoline and other chemicals is now a condominium and townhouse community with thousands of units.
"People can't dig down there and put in a pool, but they wouldn't anyway because it's townhomes," said Fred Mumford, community relations manager with New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection.
New Jersey's DEP says it will publish the identities of certain brownfield properties in its 1999 list titled "Known Contaminated Sites in New Jersey." These will be the properties that qualified for the brownfields program and now have deed notices indicating that contaminants remain in the soil or water.
"I don't think any state is as busy as we are," Rick Gimello, assistant commissioner at DEP, said. "Our pace is off the charts."
New regulations, printed in publications the size of a telephone book, are designed to protect public health, while also making cleanups inexpensive. For instance, experts say capping with asphalt or concrete or even clay is practical, cheap, and protects the public. Children won't eat contaminated dirt if it is under several inches of asphalt and a foot or two of gravel.
"The idea of stabilizing or encapsulating something in place has been around a long time, and it is very acceptable," said Ronald D. Neufeld, professor of civil engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. He was a member of the Cleanup Standards Scientific Advisory Board, which drafted the recommendations that resulted in the new environmental cleanup regulations.
"The philosophy is to reduce risk. . . . Just because it's there doesn't mean it's moving and dangerous. And that's a tough sell to the public."
In Jersey City, regulators approved a Home Depot -- which typically requires the parking space for hundreds of cars -- on a property polluted with toxic chromium waste, the state DEP's Mumford said.
To make sure the public is safe from whatever contaminants are in the ground and may come in contact with skin, states have drafted their own carcinogenic exposure limits.
Pennsylvania has set a 1-in-100,000 risk as acceptable for its statewide health standard in qualifying for the Land Recyling program. This means exposure to contaminants cannot present more than a 1-in-100,000 risk of producing cancer in a person over a lifetime.
New Jersey has set its risk standard at 1-in-1,000,000, which is the standard used by the federal government. Pennsylvania officials say the higher standard is unnecessarily conservative.
Kevin Reinert, a member of the Pennsylvania advisory board and research section manager in the toxicology department at Philadelphia's Rohm & Haas Co., called the risk "a blip on what we expose ourselves to every day voluntarily."
A comparable cancer risk would be smoking 14 cigarettes in a lifetime, having 10 chest X-rays, or drinking 300 cans of diet soda, Reinert said.
Many abandoned urban factories are the way they were before the brownfield laws were passed -- blighted.
the brownfield program in Philadelphia has been tearing down the former Sovereign Oil fuel depot on American Street in North Philadelphia and building the food warehouse on the heavily contaminated soil. The effort was paid for with more than $1 million in government grants.
City officials said say they will need additional government subsidies, in addition to the relaxed standards, to redevelop the remaining polluted industrial sites scattered around the city.
That's not so with prized, contaminated suburban land at highway crossroads.
Take the 100 acres in Plymouth Township with the asbestos goo as an example.
The land, which has been an environmental concern for state regulators since the 1970s, is near the intersection of the Blue Route and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a wonderful spot for a corporate office park and retail center. On a recent day, a hawk soared overhead and, several hundred yards away, the cars whooshed by on the expressway.
A Target discount store and Lowe's Home Center have already signed on as tenants for the Metroplex shopping center that will be built there.
About a half-mile from that site, another 52 acres qualified for liability relief through the Land Recycling Act. This is at the intersection of Alan Wood Road and Ridge Pike.
One monitoring well on the 52 acres found contaminants at troublesome levels, although it did not appear that the chemicals were reaching Plymouth Creek.
State regulators did not require a cleanup. In the past year, a BJ's Warehouse, Office Max and Home Depot have been built on the site.
The shopping center is the largest chunk of retail space built in the township since the Plymouth Meeting Mall was built in the 1960s.
Pennsylvania DEP officials say they are pleased with the brownfields program because it protects the public health and fuels development.
"Before this, the federal government and the states wanted you to clean up the ground to a level it was when Lady Godiva was around," said Jim Snyder, a director with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. "It didn't make any sense."
© 1998 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.