Cleaner, Faster, Friendlier

 By Katharine Logan

Brownfield remediation’s third generation comes of age.

Brownfield cleanup, long a quagmire of cost and uncertainty, is undergoing a paradigm shift. As regulatory agencies put away their big sticks and facilitate collaborative, market-driven solutions instead, brownfield redevelopment is emerging as cleanup’s main driver.

“What we’re seeing is the maturing of a third generation in brownfield remediation,” says James Maul, president of Maul Foster & Alongi, a consulting firm integrating environmental engineering with planning and community development.

Brownfield development is providing opportunities for the city of Portland, Oregon.

In brownfields’ first generation, regulatory agencies drove cleanup for cleanup’s sake, with no consideration for economic or community context. In the second generation, elements of proposed redevelopments crept in for cost savings: pathways or building foundations, for example, might form part of the cap on a contaminated site.

In the third generation, the most polluted sites have been dealt with, and most of the thousands of brownfields that remain will never rise to the top of the environmental priority list. What’s driving cleanup of these sites is their economic and community value. Often occupying desirable, in-town locations, blighted sites have the potential to contribute to their community’s green space, density, employment, tax base, morale, health, and perceived viability. “In the third generation of brownfield cleanup,” says Maul, “the development is the remedy.”

Key to this trend, which has been maturing in the Pacific Northwest over the last decade or so, is a reduced level of uncertainty around brownfield transactions and liabilities. Public sector leadership in both Washington and Oregon has generated a suite of tools to allow market forces to deal confidently with contaminated sites. Statewide programs provide funding for planning, market analysis, and community engagement so brownfield cleanup gets wrapped into a larger value proposition.

The landfill site before it was capped by an artificial-turf athletic complex.

“The reality is local government leaders don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘How do I manage my environmental liability?’” says Jim Pendowski, manager of Washington’s Toxics Cleanup Program. “Their priority is making their community a better place to live.” An example of how Washington’s Department of Ecology (ECY) helps make the link between those two objectives clear is the Integrated Planning Grant, a small investment that enables a local government to explore what its brownfield cleanup would involve, and what benefits its community would gain. Just as importantly, the integrated planning process gives local leaders a positive experience of working with ECY, and builds relationships that facilitate change.

The cleanup of a 40-acre defunct wood treatment facility on Lake River in the Port of Ridgefield, Washington, helped pioneer the collaborative paradigm characteristic of third-generation projects. When the Pacific Wood Treating Corporation went bankrupt in 1993, it abandoned hundreds of thousands of gallons of wood-treating chemicals, thousands of tons of hazardous waste, severely contaminated soil and groundwater, and toxins migrating along the aquifer toward the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. With the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gearing up to list the site for mandatory cleanup, the Port of Ridgefield found itself liable for the entire cost of remediation.

Facing the prospect of bankruptcy to achieve even a minimally cleaned site that would remain a fenced blight in the middle of town for years to come, the Port approached ECY. “For [ECY], it wasn’t just about cleanup,” says Maul, who helped the municipality strategize a solution, “it was also about maintaining the viability of the community.”

ECY negotiated a voluntary, but no less rigorous, cleanup that would keep the project out of the cumbersome federal system. And when the Port struggled to fund the work, ECY began to innovate to get the job done. It funded half the initial cleanup phase, for example, dependent on matching funds from the community. And when the Port could not immediately come up with its share, ECY agreed to front the money on the strength of the Port’s grant and appropriation prospects. “I can’t emphasize enough how innovative it was for a regulatory agency to do this,” says Maul. “It took a lot of courage for them to think outside the box like they did.”

Columbia Memorial Hospital’s new 18,000-sq-ft comprehensive cancer treatment center and specialty clinic. Rendering: Petersen Kolberg & Associates (PKA) Architects

Today, the wood treatment site has been cleaned to a higher standard than could have been achieved under the first-generation paradigm. The surface chemicals and contaminated structures have been removed, the soil cleaned, and some 30,000 gallons of recalcitrant chemicals extracted from the groundwater with an innovative steam-enhanced technology. The preserved wildlife refuge is one of two refuges nationwide piloting a new paradigm for what such places can be. And long-range planning decisions made in the context of the collaborative cleanup have helped make the Port of Ridgefield the fastest growing community in the state. “Ridgefield shaped our thinking,” says Pendowski. “It showed us how looking more broadly can pull our environmental agenda along.”

Across the river in Astoria, Oregon, the transformation of a leaching landfill into a new sports complex demonstrates how a public-private partnership can harness the momentum of multiple agendas. Over 30 years ago, Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) ordered the city of Astoria to prevent leachate flowing from its landfill into a nearby creek and wetland. Astoria closed the landfill, but capping it properly was more than the city could afford. The leaching landfill dragged on as an expense, liability, and risk.

Meanwhile, Astoria’s Columbia Memorial Hospital needed to expand but could not. With the Columbia River on two sides of the city, and the Coast mountain range behind, developable land is scarce, and the hospital was landlocked—except for the high school’s football field right next door. So Columbia Memorial made a proposal: If the hospital provided most of the $8 million to close the landfill properly and redevelop it as a sports complex, could the hospital have the old sports field for its expansion?

Winner of a Phoenix Award for this innovative solution to a blighted site, the development has given the school district a new 17-acre sports facility capable of hosting regional and state athletic events, with the potential to generate revenue from rentals. The hospital has a site to expand its services, including a cancer diagnosis and treatment center so that patients will no longer face a 45- to 90-minute drive for treatments elsewhere. And, of course, the landfill no longer leaches.

“The redevelopment actually wound up enhancing the landfill closure,” notes Tim Spencer, DEQ’s project manager. The sports field, with a membrane liner beneath it, is a much more sophisticated cap over that portion of the landfill. The athletic building roofs reroute rainwater so it cannot absorb into old waste. And project details designed to monitor and vent methane gas generated in the landfill ensures the site’s ongoing safety.

“The idea that we could do more than simply stop polluting, that we could end up with something that is an asset to the community, is very clear at Astoria,” says Spencer. “We’re all learning from it.”

The land constraints that drove Astoria’s brownfield solution also play out on a larger scale in the city of Portland, Oregon. For Portland, as for Astoria, sprawl is not an option. “All our opportunities for growth already lie within the city limits,” says Lisa Abuaf, Central City Manager at the Portland Development Commission. “We can’t expand, so brownfields are the opportunities for achieving the city’s objectives.”

The first new building in the Zidell Yards redevelopment, the Emery apartments, is LEED Silver.

Some of the city’s most significant brownfield opportunities stretch along its riverfront, where former industrial lands are finding new life as contemporary urban developments on the leading edge of green. The first phase in the rehabilitation of Portland’s south waterfront, for example, has enabled Oregon Health Sciences University, one of Portland’s largest employers, to expand within the city, developing the first large medical building to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certification, and partnering with two other universities to develop the COTE Top Ten–winning LEED Platinum Collaborative Life Sciences Building, all part of the university’s larger commitment to environmental leadership.

Next up, on the south waterfront is Zidell Yards, a 33-acre former ship-wrecking site. After an award-winning remediation removed contamination hot spots, capped remaining residue, and created new habitat for salmon along the riverbanks, this site now constitutes the largest privately owned bare-land waterfront parcel in Portland. The City of Portland has reached a development agreement with the site’s owner—a family business with deep roots in the city—that will govern the site’s transformation into a projected 1.44-million-sq-ft mixed-use neighborhood. Prioritizing density, transit, district energy, green infrastructure, LEED certification of buildings, affordable housing, public open space, and a construction contract requirement for the inclusion of minority and women apprentices, the development agreement exemplifies the city’s approach to brownfield redevelopment as an opportunity for sustainable city building.

In addition to its city building priorities, Portland sees in brownfield redevelopment a chance to cultivate and market the expertise of the city’s green development practitioners. As economics drive more brownfield redevelopments, and as more jurisdictions adopt a collaborative paradigm, this exportable knowledge base can expect to find a wide market. In China, for example, the need for both arable land and urban growth is highlighting the redevelopment potential in contaminated urban sites. “Internationally and into the future,” says Maul, “brownfield redevelopment will drive the majority of cleanups.”