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A Case Study of Sustainable Development: Brownfields

April 2002

Citation: 32 ELR 10420

Issue: 4

Author: Joel B. Eisen

By the 1980s, deteriorating hulks of abandoned factories and overgrown vacant lots in many American cities served as notable symbols of urban decline. These sites had earned the label of "brownfields," which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) now defines as "abandoned, idled, or under-used industrial and commercial facilities where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination."1 A brownfield site can be as small as a corner lot or as large as an abandoned steel mill, though former industrial properties attract the most attention. According to one estimate there were as many as 500,000 such sites in the United States.2 The extent of contamination present at these sites after decades of industrial activity was unknown. In the meantime, businesses fled increasingly to suburban and exurban locations known as "greenfields," motivated in part by the widespread perception of these locations as "clean."

While the problem of urban blight and flight to suburban greenfields has many causes, it largely arose because of the unintended chilling effect of the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA),3 and its state-law analogues, on brownfields redevelopment.4 Therefore, brownfields laws and policies typically aim directly at modifying those environmental laws thought to be most responsible for stifling urban development. The brownfields discussion is somewhat retrospective: it gives us an opportunity to learn from our mistakes and "avoid re-creating Brownfields and continuing their legacy."5 If that were the only important aspect of brownfields revitalization, the link to sustainable development would probably not be readily apparent. However, each decision to remediate and reuse brownfields triggers a much wider variety of concerns: documenting and eliminating environmental health risks while promoting reinvestment, creating jobs, slowing the acceleration of suburban "greenfields" development, decreasing polarization of communities, and fostering public involvement in every aspect of redevelopment efforts. Each brownfields site thus provides an excellent opportunity for us to discuss how to reverse decades of urban decay and to alleviate the unchecked, wasteful development in suburban America.6 These are central concerns in sustainable development policy, and the link between brownfields policies and sustainable development is therefore quite tangible. Not surprisingly, brownfields developers are often quick to call their projects core elements of urban sustainability efforts.

[Editors' Note: In June 1992, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, the nations of the world formally endorsed the concept of sustainable development and agreed to a plan of action for achieving it. One of those nations was the United States. In September 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, these nations will gather in Johannesburg to review progress in the 10-year period since UNCED and to identify steps that need to be taken next. In anticipation of the Rio + 10 summit conference, Prof. John C. Dernbach is editing a book that assesses progress that the United States has made on sustainable development in the past 10 years and recommends next steps. The book, which is scheduled to be published by the Environmental Law Institute in June 2002, is comprised of chapters on various subjects by experts from around the country. This Article will appear as a chapter in the book. Further information on the book will be available at www.eli.org or by calling 1-800-433-5120 or 202-939-3844.]

The author is Professor and Director, Robert R. Merhige Jr., Center of Environmental Law, University of Richmond Law School.

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