Does your neighborhood have a vacant lot or a closed business like a gas station or dry cleaner? Tired of passing it every day?
One reason it might be that way is pollution (or suspected pollution) from a previous owner.
Follow the path
See an illustrated version of this story at the bottom of this page.
Let's say you want to do something about it – get it cleaned up and pursue your own dream of a new business.
What do you do to turn a polluted liability into an asset for you and your community?
There's no single recipe for success. Every site is different. Some can be cleaned up and redeveloped quickly. Others take years or even decades. Sometimes buyer after buyer backs out when they realize the extent of pollution.
But if you were determined to move forward to clean up and redevelop a brownfield, here's a look at the steps you might take.
Step 1: Research
First you have to get some idea of what's there.
Normally, you would hire an environmental consulting firm or a licensed environmental professional to conduct a basic background check on the property, called a Phase I environmental site assessment. Banks will often require it before offering a loan to develop a site that's possibly polluted.
This is a very high-level look at what often happens in brownfield cleanup and redevelopment. For more detailed information, visit the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality or Business Oregon's Brownfields Program.
Public agencies or nonprofits can help pay for this first assessment, which usually costs a few thousand dollars.
This assessment investigates previous uses of the property, past and present uses of nearby properties, environmental records and databases, historic photos and other records that provide information on activities on or near the site.
As a potential buyer, your hope is that the consultant finds no evidence of potential contamination.
If potential contamination is identified – even if it's not a sure thing – sometimes it's enough to scare a potential buyer or redeveloper away to a different property that is more likely to be free of pollution.
Step 2: Assess
Still determined to move forward? Now it's time to go deeper.
In a Phase II environmental assessment, you'll typically hire a consultant to take samples of surface soil and water, subsurface soil and groundwater. You may get other things sampled as well, like electrical equipment, underground storage tanks, catch basins and floor drains, and storage drums.
If it sounds detailed, it is. It's often costly as well. These assessments can cost $100,000 or more, depending on the kind of site, sometimes with many consultants working together to produce a report that can run into hundreds of pages. State, local and federal government agencies sometimes chip in or provide loans to help with the costs, as do nonprofits.
Once the site has been thoroughly investigated and any hazards have been identified, a consultant will assess how polluted a site really is – and its potential risks and threats. They'll present these findings to you and other interested parties like local and state agencies and nearby property owners.
Step 3: Clean and/or contain
Cleaning up a brownfield is almost always a team effort. Before starting cleanup, you'll get together with other stakeholders to discuss the objectives of the site remediation and everyone's role in the process.
The team at this stage can include the current property owner, a potential future property owner, local governments, nonprofits, lenders, consultants, attorneys, insurance companies and state and federal regulators. So, a lot of players.
Depending on the degree of contamination, as a property buyer you could either conduct an independent cleanup or work in direct cooperation with state regulators through the whole process. Either way, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality will need to sign off when you're done.
If you work with DEQ, you might complete an agreement that protects you from future lawsuits or costs due to pollution on the property when you bought it, since by law property owners are typically responsible for the costs of cleaning up pollution they caused. The agreement helps reduce risk for a bank you'll probably need to finance your project. But to be eligible, you'll have to show your proposed redevelopment will bring "substantial public benefit" and your cleanup must be carried out with close state monitoring.
Redevelopment plans for the site are often discussed so that the site can be cleaned to the appropriate standard. For instance, reusing brownfields for homes typically requires much more stringent cleanup efforts. On the other hand, the costs can sometimes be covered by the improved value. You'll also need to discuss the economic and legal risks and potential costs.
The actual cleanup of a brownfield depends on the type and degree of contamination. You might hire contractors to excavate and remove toxic soil, clean it up in place, remove and dispose contained hazardous waste, pumping and treat of contaminated groundwater, or put a cap over contaminated soil or landfills. You might need to come up with plans for safely venting any gases from pollution that remains on the site, or for treating stormwater on the property.
Wait – who pays for all this?
On big sites, cleanup can run into hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. So you're probably wondering: How are you going to pay for it? Do you have to?
By law, the parties that caused the pollution are supposed to pay for cleanup. But that's not always possible – particularly with "orphan" sites. These are places where the polluter has gone out of business, abandoned a property, or simply can't afford cleanup. And sometimes the source of contamination can't be identified. In these cases, DEQ could pay for some of the cost of cleanup. In some cities, programs like the Portland Brownfield Program – funded by federal grants – can chip in with grants or loans. You could also obtain a low-interest loan from the Oregon Brownfields Redevelopment Fund, which is administered by Business Oregon and funded by the Legislature.
There are other state and local funding sources emerging, too. In 2016, following advocacy by a Metro-convened Oregon Brownfield Coalition, the Legislature gave local governments the option to create property tax abatements to help shoulder some costs for landowners who didn't cause the pollution they're cleaning up. In the future, the Legislature may consider a statewide income tax credit that could also help reimburse some of your costs.
Step 4: Monitor
So now you've cleaned up the property, or contained whatever pollution was there so it won't be a hazard anymore. Are you done? Probably not. Ongoing monitoring may be required for years.
Your final goal, as far as the pollution is concerned, is a letter from the state called a notice of No Further Action, meaning state regulators are satisfied that the pollution is sufficiently cleaned up or contained. The letter usually means you can stop most active monitoring. But if the site is ever redeveloped again, the process might have to start over again.
What about redevelopment?
It would be best if this story could always end neatly with a finished product: A new business, housing or a park on what used to be a vacant eyesore, and the community toasting your success. But it's rarely that simple.
Sometimes, you'll start redevelopment even as you're doing the cleanup work, which might save you some money.
But often redevelopment happens later, though – potentially much later. Much of that depends on the economy, your plans to use the site and whether you can get a bank or another entity to loan you the money you need to finish your project.
Part science, part partnership and part vision, the recipe for brownfield cleanup and redevelopment takes patience, time and typically a substantial investment from a variety of private and public partners.
But with thousands of brownfield sites scattered around a quickly growing region, and a variety of new tools emerging to pay for cleaning them up – maybe you'll find that the costs are worth it.
And maybe that vacant lot or abandoned gas station could really become a place to pursue your dream.
View an illustrated version of this story
Survey: What do you think?
Do you have experience with brownfield cleanup and redevelopment? Or are you just curious about it? Either way, we'd like to hear from you. The Oregon Brownfield Coalition advocates for strategies to get polluted brownfields cleaned up and put to better use more quickly. Tell the coalition how it can help.
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