Workers clean up contaminated soil in the parking lot that is now the new addition to the Lynn Community Health Center.
Photo courtesy of MassDevelopment.
More than 100 million taxpayer dollars have been spent over the last two decades to clean up a toxic mix of chemicals that has contaminated land, tainted waterways and imperiled the health of residents throughout Massachusetts. Yet, despite that costly undertaking, thousands of contaminated sites remain, a blight of useless land and abandoned buildings in cities and towns across the region, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR) has found.
The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has identified about 40,000 contaminated sites in Massachusetts since 1993.
About 30,000 of those properties have undergone some form of cleanup, DEP said. Nearly 900 of the remaining 10,000 properties, or about 10 percent, have been designated as brownfields – sites considered to be contaminated but capable of being redeveloped, said Kerry Bowie, the agency's brownfield program coordinator.
Designed to turn blighted and contaminated industrial areas into new uses, such as housing, offices or shopping centers, brownfield redevelopment has meant a boon for developers ever since the 1998 passage of the state's Brownfields Act created financial incentives and liability relief for brownfield cleanup projects.
Enticed by cheap property costs, government loans, tax credits and other incentives, developers soon began snatching up, cleaning up and fixing up the wasteland of abandoned factory buildings and chemically tainted land, making the program an historic success, state officials said. In fact, in its first 10 years of the project, DEP completed 360 cleanups and assisted in 723 projects covering 199 communities, state records show.
Yet today, with about 9,000 hazardous sites creating a toxic patchwork across Massachusetts and about 1,200 new spots of contamination discovered annually, environmental experts worry that the state may be placing economic development ahead of the health of its citizens.
“Just about every brownfield project in Massachusetts initiates because there is a developer who wants to use a site. That is how almost all brownfields get remediated,” said Justin Hollander, author of several books on brownfields, including “Polluted and Dangerous: America's Worst Abandoned Properties and What Can Be Done About Them,” which looked at brownfields in five American cities, including New Bedford.
Hollander, also an associate professor in urban planning and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University in Medford, said the state should reconsider its developer-driven brownfield program. Instead of spending millions to help developers morph toxic sites into shopping malls, offices, housing and other projects, he said, the state can create park land and open space that will enhance the environment while minimizing health risks at far less cost.
“When you look at the amount of money spent to subsidize the development of a shopping mall on a former brownfield, you can create a saver soil in hundreds of other locations that would be a better use of that money,” he said,
Yet big bucks spending on brownfield redevelopment continues.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency says it has spent more than $85.8 million on 260 contaminated Bay State sites – including 160 brownfields – since 1993. Meanwhile, MassDevelopment, the state redevelopment agency that provides grants and loans to brownfield projects, distributed about $61.5 million in loans since 1998 to cleanup and reuse 538 parcels. In the last two fiscal years alone, DEP has spent more than $25 million on hazardous site cleanup and plans to spend an additional $16 million in Fiscal 2013.
Since 2007, out of nearly 900 brownfield sites identified by DEP in Massachusetts, only 71 have received grants from that agency for site assessment and cleanup and only a handful of those have been remediated and redeveloped, data supplied by the DEP shows. Ten other properties have been placed on the fast track for cleanup under the state's Brownfield Support Team Initiative, an inter-agency program developed in 2008 that provides money and other assistance to communities to help clean up and redevelop municipally-owned brownfield sites. About 80 percent of those projects have been completed, Bowie said.
Despite the millions spent by state and federal agencies to remediate those dirty sites, about 9,000 brownfield sites – approximately 25 brownfields for each of the 351 cities and towns in the Commonwealth --- remain on the books.
Nancy Goodman, vice president for policy with the Environmental League of Massachusetts, pins much of the blame for the slow pace of brownfield remediation on budget cutbacks that have decimated the DEP, the state agency responsible for much of the cleanup oversight. Since Fiscal 2002, DEP's budget dropped from a high of $134.6 million to $99 million just three years later in Fiscal 2005. Today, the agency's budget is $105.8 million, $29 million less than just 10 years earlier. The number of full-time and contract workers employed by DEP has also been cut substantially from a high of 1,246 in 2002 to 816 in 2012 – the lowest level in the last 10 years, data supplied by DEP shows. The EPA has seen similar budget and staffing reductions.
Those cutbacks have taken a toll.
With only about 20 people currently employed by DEP to do site inspections, the number of on- site inspections has been cut, critics claim. Even the agency admits that most reviews are now done by examining paperwork filed by licensed site professionals, although Bowie said on-site inspections are conducted when necessary.
Licensed site professionals, known as LSPs, were incorporated into the state's environmental program in 1993 when Massachusetts privatized the cleanup process by establishing a board to set standards and license specially trained environmental experts. Often trained in engineering, the LSPs are responsible for all phases of the assessment and cleanup effort.
Privatizing the process helped increase the pace of remediation for contaminated properties and won the state recognition as a national model. Still, the cleanup of brownfields remains sluggish. The DEP gave NECIR two different numbers when asked how many brownfield sites the agency cleans up each year. First Bowie, who oversees the DEP’s brownfields program, said the agency remediates about 12 brownfield sites annually. A few weeks later, a spokesperson for DEP supplied a different number, claiming—in an e-mail—that 80 brownfields are remediated each year.
Critics say that staff cutbacks at DEP have hampered the pace of brownfield cleanups and have prevented DEP from properly monitoring the sites. Those critics say that's especially troubling given that the licensed site professionals employed to handle the process are paid – not by DEP or another agency – but by the developers themselves.
“The state audits only a very few of the cleanups,” noted Eugene Benson, a law professor and legal counsel for the non-profit Alternatives for Community and Environment, whose student-led study of a highly touted redevelopment project along the Malden River found pollutants in water and on land. “They don't have a lot of staff to do auditing, so the cleanups take place without any DEP oversight even though in theory, they are being monitored by the DEP,” Benson said.
DEP officials, however, claim the agency routinely monitors site paperwork to detect any irregularity that may signal an issue with a site professional and said problems can mean the loss of license or censure.
But Allan Fierce, the former executive director of the Board of Registration of Licensed Site Professionals and now an environmental attorney, said that's something many site professionals don't have to worry about because few complaints are ever filed against them.
“The number of complaints referred by DEP to the Board of Registration of Licensed Site Professionals has dropped to almost nothing,” said Fierce.
More than 540 site professionals are currently licensed in the state. Since 2004, the board has revoked or temporarily suspended the licenses of 39 site professionals and publicly censured four others. Only one LSP annually has been disciplined in each of the last three years, down from a high of six in 2008, according to the Board of Registration's website.
Some environmental advocates also worry that since privatization, not everyone is sharing equally in cleaner, redeveloped communities.
Almost every region in Massachusetts has received some funding for brownfield assessment or remediation since 1994, data provided by the EPA and DEP shows. However, poor urban communities where contaminated industrial sites are often prevalent, have not seen many of their toxic waste sites redeveloped. That's because brownfield redevelopment in Massachusetts is largely developer driven, which means developers can pick which sites they will clean up and redevelop based on the economic feasibility of a project, state and federal environmental officials said.
Neighborhoods with stronger economic potential – downtown Lowell where canal-side mills have been turned into housing, for example – offer more appeal to developers than rural or urban locations with limited site access, officials noted.
Documents from MassDevelopment show that while urban, low income communities in the Bay State receive funding to assess potential brownfields, former mill towns in suburban areas get more money to actually clean up contamination.
Dr. Daniel Faber, Director of Northeastern University's Environmental Justice Research Collaborative, said that's because poorer communities with few resources are less appealing to developers, leaving those areas with little opportunity to clean up toxic sites or bring jobs, housing and retail outlets into the neighborhood. Worse still, the likelihood that a company will contaminate a site is even greater in a poorer community than a richer one, said Faber.
“Generally, communities with less economic power are usually targeted for the disposal of hazardous waste,” Faber noted, adding that large immigrant communities, fragmented by ethnic and language barriers, are often unable to mobilize to fight the placement of toxic businesses in their neighborhoods, thus opening the door to contamination. “It's becoming even more profound in those types of communities,” Faber said of the toxic brew left by some businesses.
But DEP's Bowie said that tighter environmental regulations and increased public awareness means that fewer new brownfields are being created than in the past.
“We’re making a dent,” said the state's brownfield coordinator, claiming that more brownfield sites are being remediated and fewer are being created than ever before.
For Joy Conway, who heads up MassDevelopment's Community Development Department, not only is the state making a dent in the number of brownfields, the $67.5 million in loans available to developers is also helping to improve the Bay State's economy.
“It's both an economic development program and an environmental cleanup program to remove blighted properties while also creating jobs and housing,” Conway said of the MassDevelopment program that has helped clean up toxic waste sites from Attleboro town center, assisted in the redevelopment of a former mill site in Fall River and allowed Chicopee to tear down a derelict tire plant.
But for many community leaders, cleaning up a blighted site while adding jobs and housing, may be more of an undertaking than they imagine. Just ask the developers of a Malden River site who found a dirty little secret brewing under the soil. Along the 2.3 miles of riverbank spanning Malden, Everett and Medford was a toxic cocktail of volatile organic compounds, petroleum, hydrocarbons and metals, a 2007 Army Corps of Engineer report found.
“There are still a lot of brownfields out there,” noted Benson, whose students studied the Malden River area as part of a school project. “We would be doing a lot better if there was more money in the brownfield fund, if more sites were cleaned up, and if there were better time standards and requirements for the cleanups. We're not doing terribly,” he added. “but we could be doing a lot better.”
The New England Center for Investigative Reporting is nonprofit investigative reporting newsroom based at Boston University.