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Brownfields in America: Seeds of Innovation from the States

Across the United States, properties known as brownfields constitute a growing dilemma for state and local governments. Numbering in the hundreds of thousands to perhaps a million nationwide, these sites encompass abandoned or underused facilities where expansion or redevelopment is thwarted by real or perceived environmental contamination.

Brownfields comprise current or former manufacturing establishments, gas stations, mines, refineries, mechanics shops, landfills, dry cleaners, shopping malls, former military bases, and hundreds of other commercial or public activities. They are found across urban, suburban, and rural settings, occupying parcels smaller than the average home lot, covering entire city blocks, or sprawling over thousands of acres. Left unattended, they not only become eyesores, but also may pose threats to public health and the environment and depress the economy of neighborhoods.

Local businesses and residents have been reluctant to buy and redevelop brownfields for fear of being forced to clean them up under federal and state laws. Yet, the cleanup and return to productive use of these sites has been pushed by governors, mayors, and county executives, as well as federal officials. The near-unanimous passage in Congress of the 2001 Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act showcases the broad support for such revitalization.

On the ground in cities across the country, a variety of incentives to encourage the redevelopment of brownfields have appeared.

In a recent study of these incentives funded by the USEPA (RFF Discussion Paper 04-46, The Brownfields Phenomenon: Much Ado about Something or the Timing of the Shrewd?), RFF Fellow Kris Wernstedt, Peter Meyer at the Center for Environmental Policy and Management at the University of Louisville, and Anna Alberini of the University of Maryland's Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics surveyed over 300 private developers about the attractiveness of these incentives.

Results suggest protection from future claims of environmental damages from contamination and from liability for additional future cleanup requirements both are highly attractive, with the damage protection appearing more valuable than the cleanup liability protections. These values are particularly high for developers who have relatively little experience with contaminated sites.

Link to RFF Discussion Paper
The Brownfields Phenomenon: Much Ado about Something or the Timing of the Shrewd?
Discussion Paper 04-46
November 2004

Current related work by Wernstedt, RFF Senior Fellow Allen Blackman, and Tom Lyon of the University of Michigan investigates state-level programs that encourage the voluntary cleanup of contaminated properties. The study, which is also funded by the USEPA, examines the motivations of public and private entities to enter voluntary cleanup programs and the features of the programs that appear most attractive to participants and most effective to state officials. It also explores the relationship between motivations for participation and characteristics of enrolled properties.

In other recent work on brownfields, Wernstedt and Robert Hersh of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight--with the support of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation--have studied in detail how one state, Wisconsin, has developed its program on contaminated land.

A trio of papers describes the policy innovations in the state, what drove them, and experiences with their implementation.

In RFF's collection of memos of policy advice to the president--New Approaches on Energy and the Environment: Policy Advice for the President--Wernstedt also has examined ways to encourage property owners and developers to undertake brownfields redevelopment across wide areas of a community rather than on a property-by-property basis.

Current work by Wernstedt that is funded by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy is applying these ideas to an inner city neighborhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Restoration of contaminated properties will be a continuing challenge for many years. And, the process will be expensive. Costs for cleanup at a single parcel can be tens of thousands of dollars, with more complicated sites easily requiring expenditures of hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. The RFF studies describe some of the tools that communities have used to pay for this, the difficulties they have encountered, and the remaining challenges in revitalizing communities through the redevelopment of contaminated land.


The Brownfield Bargain: Negotiating Site Cleanup Policies in Wisconsin
Discussion Paper 03-52

Brownfields Redevelopment in Wisconsin:
Program, Citywide,
and Site-Level Studies

Discussion Paper 03-53 Abstract

Brownfields Redevelopment in Wisconsin:
A Survey of the Field

Discussion Paper 03-54 Abstract

Brownfields Acronym List
Companion to Discussion Papers 03-52, 03-53, & 03-54

Link to RFF Press Book New Approaches on Energy and the Environment

Chapter 15. A Broader View of Brownfield Revitalization
Kris Wernstedt
In New Approaches on Energy and the Environment: Policy Advice for the President


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