June 10, 1999
THE BridgeNews FORUM: A series of viewpoints on government regulation.

Lack Of Accountability Weakens A Cleanup Program

A Costly US Program To Restore Industrial Sites Looks Muddled Next To Well-Focused State Efforts

By Christopher A. Hartwell of the Reason Public Policy Institute

LOS ANGELES-Environmental pro-tec-tion is a tricky business. It's not only hard to know what to do, it's hard to know when you've done the job correctly.

The environment is hard to measure, and success is not as easily measured as say, the number of letters delivered or the number of tanks bombed.

That makes for a tricky policy issue. It's easy to legislate against pollution, but how clean is clean and how do you know when you get there?

According to a new report from the General Accounting Office, the Brownfields Partnership Initiative (one of the Clinton administration's high-profile environmental projects) fails to answer even the most rudimentary of questions: How has the money spent helped the environment?

Launched in 1997 to broad fanfare, the Brownfields Partnership Initiative was designed to speed the cleanup of former industrial sites known as "brownfields."

Most brownfields are subject to the "Superfund" process, a lengthy bureaucratic procedure that subjects potential owners to strict liability standards. The fear of prosecution and liability often results in properties' languishing vacant, sometimes for decades.

The administration's program has spent $465 million over two years in an attempt to speed the cleanup of these sites to a point where they can be used for commercial or residential development.

A noble goal, to be sure. All land has some economic value, and to not utilize brownfields represents a loss to society. So how has the administration's program fared? According to the GAO report, no one knows.

The goals of the administration-creating new jobs, preserving greenfields-cannot be determined "because most agencies are not tracking all of these outcomes or collecting data specific to brownfields that would allow them to do so," the report says.

Beyond the wastefulness of throwing money at a project without accountability or a barometer of success, it's important to question if brownfield management should be in the federal government's purview at all.

The states have achieved impressive success over the past decade in brownfield redevelopment, crafting programs that com-bine compliance assistance with flexibility in meeting goals.

In Minnesota, for example, the Voluntary Investigation and Cleanup program has contributed to nearly 500 sites' being remediated, including important property in downtown Minneapolis.

The program is an effective way to put valuable resources back into productive use quickly, as most sites have a four- to nine-month holdover in the program.

Rather than spending enormous amounts of money, the program has retained a cost-effective mentality. Although there is a 20-person staff with an annual budget of more than $1 million, the cost to taxpayers is almost nothing because the program charges developers for costs (the fee is usually less than $5,000).

As a former supervisor put it, "This not only makes good environmental sense, it makes good business sense, too."

Similarly, in Pennsylvania, a "land recycling" program avoids unnecessary govern- govern-ment prescriptions and is instead based on scientific assessment of the risks associated with a particular site.

This innovative approach has allowed Bethlehem Steel to clean up a former plant site and begin construction of a museum of industrial history.

Other companies in Pennsylvania have been aided by the liability- release clause of the program. This allowed one former manufacturing site to be reused for a micro-brewery, a specialty steel distributor and an automotive training center.

As these programs show, the states, unlike the federal bureaucracy, have the local knowledge and abilities to track the effectiveness of their programs.

The GAO report serves to emphasize that now, more than ever, the states should be given a freer hand by the federal government to protect the environment.

CHRISTOPHER A. HARTWELL is a policy analyst at Reason Public Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in Los Angeles. His views are not necessarily those of Bridge News, whose ventures include the Internet site OPINION ARTICLES and letters to the editor are welcome. Send submissions to Sally Heinemann, editorial director, Bridge News, 3 World Financial Center, 200 Vesey St., 28th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10281-1009. You may also call (212) 372-7510, fax (212) 372-2707 or send e-mail to

-distributed by Bridge News, June 10, 1999



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