For more information, contact:
Nick Warner, Special Projects Manager
For a variety of reasons, more brownfield sites than ever are being identified across the country. This trend is also true in Burlington. One reason may be the significant changes in the awareness level in the real estate and banking industries. For example, before commercial real estate transactions can close, most lending institutions now require that a detailed site assessment be conducted. This was not true ten years ago, and is now standard practice.
Another reason that more brownfields are being identified may be that developers now seek out contaminated sites as they see a clearer path to resolving contamination issues, due to improved federal and state legislation, funding programs, and insurance products.
The most common time when a contaminated site is discovered in Burlington seems to be during a real estate transactions, when an assessment has been performed in advance of property sale and/or redevelopment. Another time when contamination is unearthed is during excavation when a previously unknown condition is found. There are also a large number of abandoned underground storage tanks (possibly several hundred city-wide) that are discovered during site assessments, ground penetrating radar surveys, and/or site excavation.
Vermont's history is primarily based in agriculture and open space, but former manufacturing sites can be found in Burlington, Rutland, Bellows Falls, St. Johnsbury, St. Albans, Springfield, Bennington, Brattleboro and other communities. This includes a broad range of past land uses that have caused contamination.
Historical and fire insurance ('Sanborn') maps of the City reveal the locations of many activities that could cause contamination. In the older residential parts of the City, many commercial services were once provided within each neighborhood. Many of these small businesses released contamination that can be found in soils and groundwater.
As a result, there are areas in Burlington where contamination can be expected to be found in groundwater, specifically in parts of downtown, the Old North End, Waterfront, and the Pine Street/Flynn Avenue corridor. Since the City of Burlington has a water and sewer system, contaminated groundwater is not as much as of issue as it is in areas where residents depend on well water and/or septic systems. This contamination is a threat, however, to the local ecosystem.
Depending on the type of substance, the size of the release, types of soils, depth to groundwater, and numerous other factors, the degree and extent of contamination is always a concern. Pollutants can move from the original source and impact other properties, sometimes hundreds of yards away. Some types of contamination (e.g., dry cleaning fluid) can last for decades, and migrate through subsurface groundwater. Petroleum compounds, on the other hand, can break down and become inert over time, but when mobilized, can cause significant environmental damage.
The issues of liability and cost are repeatedly cited in national surveys and studies as the biggest barriers to brownfields redevelopment.
Until recently, there were little or no protections for 'innocent landowners' or 'bona fide prospective purchasers' i.e., parties who had no role in causing a hazardous release, but are left with owning a contamination problem. Even well-meaning parties can create huge liabilities for themselves by cleaning up contamination: ironically, they could be brought into legal actions relating to contamination that they did not originally produce.
To address this issue, there are a number of recent changes in federal law that can help release innocent landowners from liability for past releases of contamination that they had no part of. The key issue is the buyer's knowledge of conditions at the site: a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (described below) must be performed on the property in advance of closing, and the 'All Appropriate Inquiry' process completed.
Many states have also been responding to the liability problem by enacting voluntary cleanup programs with liability relief provisions. New insurance products are also being created and implemented. Despite these changes, the cost and responsibility for assessment and cleanup often ends up with the owner/developer, and are often totally out of balance with real estate values and owner affordability.
In response to the cost problem, state legislatures and the federal government have enacted series of grant programs for assessment and cleanup of contaminated sites. The general concept is to promote site assessments and redevelopment, while keeping close track of the work being performed. With the creation of the EPA Brownfields Initiative in the mid-1990's, funding for assessment and cleanup became available through regionally-administered programs.
Other federal resources include the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Economic Development Administration.
Some liability relief and grant assistance is also available through the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation's Redevelopment of Contaminated Sites Program (RCP).