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Today, California has about one hundred active sites on the EPA's National Priorities List, a comprehensive tally of the known releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants warranting cleanup. In the East Bay these Superfund sites include a former pesticide plant in Richmond, Alameda's Naval Air Station, and the AMCO Chemical site in West Oakland. With 29 sites identified for cleanup, Santa Clara County has the highest concentration of Superfund sites of any comparable region in the country, due largely to semiconductor and aerospace factories. The Los Angeles basin also has an enormous collection of Superfund sites. Much of California is checkered with extremely polluted threats to public health.
But far more numerous and economically damaging than these Superfund sites are the ubiquitous brownfields — toxic dumps that federal officials haven't prioritized because they do not pose the same extreme risks as Superfund sites, but which are still health hazards. They're also a big drag on the economy. "The tragedy of brownfields in this country," explained Mark Gomez, a supervisor of Environmental Protection & Compliance with the City of Oakland, "stems largely from the failure of government and the courts to consistently enforce nuisance and disclosure laws prior to the advent of environmental regulations in the 1970s, coupled with regulatory overreach and confusion in the following years.
"If disclosure laws had been enforced regarding on-site contamination it would have discouraged businesses from contaminating their own properties because of the negative impact on the eventual re-sale value," Gomez continued. "Had nuisance laws been enforced on releases of hazardous substances, it would have discouraged businesses from contaminating adjacent properties or natural resources, such as surface waters, because of the threat of a lawsuit or police action."
Unfortunately, the government and the courts took a hands-off approach for decades, only instituting strict regulations in later years. "The result was that properties went from having significant value to being financial liabilities in the blink of an eye," Gomez said.
In this sense, the environmental pollution caused by yesterday's economy, and allowed because of lax or no environmental regulations, is preventing the new urban economy from taking shape. It's been a costly detour for cities, especially the East Bay's former industrial powerhouses like Oakland, Emeryville, and Richmond.
A perfect example of brownfields and the problems they pose in terms of economic development underlies much of Emeryville. Dominated by heavy industry until the 1970s when most companies closed up shop, the city was immensely contamianted. By the early 1990s, EPA staff had classified 213 acres, or about 27 percent of the city's total footprint, as contaminated.
Because this was common knowledge, Emeryville was stuck; its economy bled jobs as employers closed down or relocated overseas. City leaders were unable to lure new residents and businesses. The ghosts of the city's industrial past appeared to prevent any kind of future. The trap was set by declining tax revenues: Emeryville had no money to undertake the work required to clean up the land and water, and to chart a new course, and developers would not come to the rescue because the up-front costs were too high and public funds were unavailable. Retail stores — the essential sources of municipal tax dollars in post-Prop 13 California — could not be built on toxic land.
Enter the EPA and DTSC. Multiple federal grants in the 1990s allowed for site assessments to identify problem areas in Emeryville, thus reducing the uncertainty of potential developers looking to locate new business or housing in the city. In 1999 a half-million-dollar loan facilitated cleanup of the old Westinghouse Corporation's electrical manufacturing site, an enormous block of land saturated with polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), a most persistent and deadly contaminant. Manufactured by Monsanto, and sold in the US until they were banned in 1979, PCBs were used in everything from paint to electrical insulators. Cleanup of similarly deadly chemicals at numerous other sites followed — facilitated by federal and Cal EPA expertise and funds.
These environmental cleanups also produced huge economic dividends as developers flocked to Emeryville to build on its former brownfields. According to statistics gathered by the DTSC, between 1991 and 2010, Emeryville's property values increased 371 percent, from $870 million to about $4 billion today. New retail stores, hotels, and restaurants effectively doubled sales tax revenues for the city over the same period.
"Cleanup and redevelopment of formerly contaminated properties has allowed Emeryville to emerge from its industrial past and be reinvented," noted Helen Bean, Emeryville's economic development director. Emeryville is now widely cited as one of the star examples of economic rebirth through environmental remediation, seeded largely with federal and state grants and loans — funds that the GOP wants to slash.
But without the EPA and DTSC, the cleanup in Emeryville wouldn't have happened. The city would have been caught in its toxic trap, unable to transition, unable to create thousands of construction jobs and hundreds of permanent jobs in the businesses that have opened there. According to Robert Colangelo, excutive director of the National Brownfield Association, the real estate market would have eventually abandoned Emeryville had state and federal agencies not partnered with the city to remediate the environment. "If people take do-nothing strategies," Colangelo said with respect to brownfield pollution, "it grows and perpetuates blight and drags down the economy."
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