Opinion/Editorial (634 words)
25 for 25: DES's Brownfields Program Breaking Down Barriers to Community Revitalization
By Thomas S. Burack, DES Commissioner
Throughout 2012, in recognition of the 25th Anniversary of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, I will highlight 25 agency activities, programs, projects and accomplishments of the past 25 years. This article, the third in the series, relates to the DES Brownfields Program.
In 1987, when DES was first formed, there were several hundred sites in New Hampshire at which soil and groundwater were contaminated with hazardous wastes. The federal Superfund program had previously been established to address the very worst of these sites, and a handful of New Hampshire sites had already been listed on the Superfund National Priority List. However, the newly established Department was just beginning to develop programs to address the remaining sites that did not qualify for Superfund, but nonetheless posed significant risks to our state’s groundwater and to public health. While many of these sites were owned and operated by viable businesses that undertook the necessary investigation and remediation, many others were owned by persons who were unable to perform this important work. Still others were simply neglected or abandoned by their owners, often because the actual or perceived costs of site cleanup exceeded the property value. These sites, known as “brownfields,” were often located close to town centers, and their condition contributed to an appearance of urban blight and declining communities.
In those early years, DES established a comprehensive program to address contaminated sites; and the program worked very well for sites for which a viable site owner or other responsible party was willing and able to undertake the necessary work. However, for brownfields sites, incentives were needed to encourage others to step in and do this important work. Despite periods of relatively strong economic growth and a very active real estate market in our state, concerns about environmental liability and uncertainty about the magnitude of cleanup costs became seemingly insurmountable barriers to private investment in brownfields. Virtually every community in the state had one or more brownfields, and the “stigma” of contamination was preventing the cleanup and reuse of these otherwise valuable properties. This resulted in a trend toward developing “clean,” undeveloped greenspace on the outskirts of communities, contributing to urban sprawl.
In 1996, the New Hampshire Brownfields Program was created to address these barriers. The NH Legislature enacted RSA 147-F, which established the brownfields covenant program. The covenant program provides protections from state environmental liability for eligible participants who agree to investigate the site and develop a cleanup plan. To date, more than 53 sites have been addressed through the covenant program. In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has provided grants to DES and local communities since 1996 to address brownfields sites. DES’s program staff work closely with developers, communities, regional planning commissions, and grantees to identify, assess, cleanup and redevelop these properties. Since 1996, the program has expended a total of $5.1 million in federal funding to assess and cleanup sites throughout the state. A total of 71 sites have been assessed, half of which have been cleaned up. An additional 40 sites have been assessed or cleaned up using grants made directly from EPA to local communities. All of this work has leveraged more than $120 million in private investment in these sites.
The cleanup and redevelopment of contaminated properties often involves review, permitting, and funding assistance from other state and federal agencies, including the N.H. Department of Transportation, N.H. Fish & Game, U.S. Housing and Urban Development and USEPA. DES manages these projects proactively, effectively coordinating with these agencies and private developers to move these sites toward timely regulatory closure and successful redevelopment. These efforts have been recognized within our state and nationally with several awards.
In 25 years, DES, in concert with many partners, has facilitated the investigation, cleanup, and redevelopment of hundreds of contaminated sites in our state, contributing to the revitalization of dozens of our communities. With an efficient and effective site cleanup program and a brownfields revitalization program that ranks among the best in the nation, we work hard each day to help New Hampshire communities to grow and prosper.
Links: DES Browfields webpage: http://des.nh.gov/organization/divisions/waste/hwrb/sss/brownfields/index.htm
NH Brownfields Success Stories: http://des.nh.gov/organization/divisions/waste/hwrb/sss/brownfields/success_stories.htm
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