Summary of Hearings on Brownfields (6-15-06)
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing on June 15, 2006 to discuss the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) management of the Superfund program. Senate Democrats have criticized the Superfund program for long delays and funding changes. Senators have also been calling for more congressional oversight of the EPA to ensure hazardous waste sites are managed properly. In her opening statements, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) commented that she would like to see more of these hearings. "The last oversight hearing was four years ago this is long overdue," she said.
Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) were the first witnesses to speak before the committee. Durbin was troubled that the Superfund projects are now funded primarily by taxpayers instead of industry. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) created an environmental tax on chemical and petroleum companies which funded the cleanup of Superfund sites. CERCLA expired in 1995, and ran out of funds in 2003. "Most of us feel the industries responsible should pay," said Durbin. Cantwell described how companies avoid civil-suit liability payments by selling off assets, leaving the cost to the federal government. "We need to address the lax enforcement and loopholes that allow polluting corporations to manipulate bankruptcy laws and evade cleanup responsibilities," Cantwell said.
Susan Bodine, Assistant Administrator of EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency, defended the progress the EPA has made on restoring Superfund sites. She described projects of the 1980s and 90s as "easier sites to clean up," and have been mostly completed. Bodine insisted that funding reductions had not reduced the EPA's ability to efficiently clean up Superfund projects since about 1995. She said that states have taken the initiative to cleanup sites, reducing the burden on the EPA. However, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) disagreed and pressed Bodine for a straight answer. "You mean to tell me that with additional funds, you would not be able to speed up the completion of a single site? Yes or no," Lautenberg asked. In a brief and heated exchange between Bodine and Lautenberg, Bodine mirrored her earlier statement by saying that funding reductions had not significantly reduced the ability to manage the Superfund projects.
When the floor was opened for questions, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) raised a concern about Superfund sites being labeled "privileged" and thus not open to the public to review. "EPA should have an open door policy on the status of these sites," she exclaimed. Lautenberg was also upset about this practice, calling it "nonsense," and stating that the integrity of the agency was at risk. Families should know if their children are at risk and how to mitigate the danger, he added. In response, Bodine cited the work at EPA to increase transparency. "The agency has been getting better at providing information. Far more information is available now than ever in the past."
Other witnesses addressed ways to improve Superfund management. Kate Probst, Senior Fellow at Resources for the Future said that fewer projects are completed because appropriations have dropped 40% since 1987. Reinstating the CERCLA environmental tax would help to complete more projects in a timely manner and increase the quality of environmental monitoring at superfund sites. Mr. Robert Spiegel, Executive Director of the Edison Wetlands Association (EWA), agreed with Probst's assessment. "While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) publicly states that their cleanups are on track, it is clear at many sites I work on that work is proceeding at a far slower pace or not at all," said Spiegel. Spiegel has spent nearly twenty years raising money to clean up Superfund sites in New Jersey that the EPA hasn't yet addressed.
Dr. Leo Trasande reviewed the threat to child development posed by hazardous waste. Because children's organs are still developing, children's bodies are especially vulnerable to environmental hazards. "Children do not metabolize, detoxify, and excrete many toxins in the same way as adults; thus the chemicals can reside much longer in children's bloodstreams and cause more damage," he said. In addition, the smaller mass of a child results in a higher concentration of toxins than occurs in adults. "They take proportionately more of the toxins in water, food and air into their little bodies," commented Trasande. He added that normal childhood behaviors, such as crawling and tasting to explore, enhance the danger of environmental toxins.
Michael W. Steinberg, representing the Superfund Settlements Project testified from an industry viewpoint. The Superfund Settlements Project is an industry-sponsored group formed in 1987 to encourage Superfund site settlements and reducing the cost of Superfund projects. He described the Superfund program as "mature" and stated that "[the Superfund has] largely accomplished its goals." Steinberg added that many of the projects are being completed at too high of a cost, and suggested reducing oversight. Steinberg then clarified his statement by saying oversight is important, but many projects hire too many contractors for a single job.
In agreement, Dr. J. Winston Porter, President of the Waste Policy Center, said the current funding mechanism is the best way to pay for Superfund cleanup. Many sites have been caused by industries not part of the CRCLA environmental tax including governmental agencies, individuals, or unknown sources. "These taxes are unfair in that they target only two industries, which together account for much less than half of Superfund's contamination problems. Also, Superfund sites are a broad societal problem which has been created by many types of industries; local, state, and federal agencies; and even individuals. Therefore, I believe the current process of using general revenues and funds from directly responsible parties is the right approach," said Porter. He also agreed with Steinberg's assessment that the Superfund projects could be approached more efficiently. "I am not convinced that EPA and the Congress have done all they can to increase Superfund efficiencies and to prioritize the use of existing funds," commented Porter.
For more information, consult the Subcommittee on Superfund and Waste Management website.
The Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure held a hearing on June 8, 2006 to discuss the successes and future challenges of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Brownfields Program. Brownfields are former industrial and commercial sites (such as factories, gas stations or salvage yards) where property redevelopment may be complicated by the presence of hazardous substances or other pollutants. In the U.S. there are estimated to be 450,000 to one million brownfields sites - which tend to drive down property values and provide little or no tax revenue.
The Brownfields Revitalization and Environmental Restoration Act of 2001 (S.350), which authorized the EPA to grant funds for assessment and cleanup of brownfields and to provide liability protection, will expire at the end of fiscal year 2006. Although several concerns were cited, panel members showed general support for the reauthorization of the brownfields program. Susan Parker Bodine, Assistant Administrator of the EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, emphasized the program's effectiveness over the past five years. To date, the program has resulted in the assessment of more than 8,000 properties and has revitalized neighborhoods, created public parks, and reduced urban sprawl.
However, there are some outstanding issues with the brownfields program. Terese Manning, the Senior Planner and Brownfields Coordinator for the South Florida Regional Planning Council, provided many suggestions for improvements of the program. She proposed that there be more flexibility in EPA's grants, including a rolling grant application process, simplified program requirements, and the availability of multi-purpose grants that could be used for assessment, cleanup, demolition and property reuse planning. Manning also emphasized the importance of increased funding for the program. "EPA only funds approximately one-third of all applications," she said. "Increased funding, or even funding at the levels in the current Act will return more properties to productive use." The brownfields site assessment and cleanup program is currently authorized at a funding level of $200 million annually, but appropriations have peaked at only $98 million.
Jonathan Phillips, Senior Director of Cherokee Investment Partners - a private firm that specializes in the acquisition, and redevelopment of brownfields, stressed that the program must find a way to attract additional private capital. "If Congress wishes to seriously address this nation's brownfield crisis, we must develop additional federal incentives to draw private investment dollars to the more complex and economically less desirable sites," said Phillips. Otherwise, he said, "These sites will sit indefinitely."
Performance measures must also be developed to determine the extent to which the brownfields program is achieving its goals. Although the EPA reports on the cumulative number of sites assessed, the jobs generated, and the distribution of funding, it does not report on cleanup and redevelopment activities. Charles Boustany (R-LA) urged the EPA to develop measures to show how the program has reduced environmental risks and protected human health.
To read the hearing charter and the full text of witness testimony, click here.
On Tuesday, September 13th the House Government Reform Committee's Federalism and the Census Subcommittee held an oversight hearing entitled "Brownfields and the Fifty States: Are State Incentive Programs Capable of Solving America's Brownfields Problem?" Although the hearing was planned to address state incentives for brownfields redevelopment, in his opening statements Chairman Michael Turner (R-OH) made it clear that he thought federal incentives should be introduced to complement state programs. "We must craft a federal response to a federally-created problem," he said. Turner is planning to introduce legislation that would create a tax credit for brownfields redevelopment in poverty-rated areas, as well as provide liability protection for sites enrolled in state voluntary clean-up programs.
The first panel of witnesses consisted primarily of government officials responsible for overseeing brownfields redevelopment from several Midwestern and Northeastern states. In general these witnesses agreed with Turner that federal help was needed to encourage private companies to invest in brownfields. Kathleen McGinty from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection testified that restricted federal funds and slow and uncertain permitting processes had hindered brownfields development in her state, and she urged Congress to remedy these problems. Other witnesses focused on the success of state incentive programs in Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan; but they also underlined the importance of federal assistance in making these programs more effective. Andrew Hogarth, representing Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality, testified that Michigan would no longer be able to put as much funding into its brownfields programs, and that, if redevelopment was to continue, federal incentives would have to be increased.
Following the testimony Chairman Turner asked about the typical level
of contamination at brownfield sites and whether or not the most contaminated
sites were being redeveloped under current incentive plans. Most witnesses
responded that the sites that are most commonly developed are only
marginally contaminated. "One third of the sites are not contaminated
at all," said Charles Bartsch, "they just look lousy."
The witnesses also agreed that the more challenging sites are not
even being considered by developers because of the financial risks
these sites pose. Several witnesses said that contaminated groundwater
is a factor that makes a site particularly unattractive.
The witnesses did not all agree when asked whether tax credits or direct subsidies were the most effective means of encouraging brownfields redevelopment. When asked which of the two methods was better, Calangelo, Philips, and Houder said tax credits were the decisive factor for investors, while Matthews and Cartmell claimed that subsidies were more effective. The entire panel agreed, however, that liability relief would encourage more developers to work with brownfield sites. "Anything that lets industry see light at the end of the tunnel is a good thing," said Cartmell.
Overall, the witnesses were optimistic about the future of brownfields development, and made it clear that any help from the government would be welcomed. Jonathon Philips, from Cherokee Investments, warned the subcommittee that they should act quickly while the real estate market was strong. "Any sites that are not developed now, when prices are at a record high, will not be developed for a long time," he said.
Sources: House Government Reform Committee; Hearing testimony.
Contributed by Peter Douglas, 2005 AGI/AAPG Fall Intern; Katie Ackerly, Government Affairs Staff; and Jessica Rowland, 2006 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern.
Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.
Last updated on June 21, 2006