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Nearly every Connecticut community is laced with sites tainted by contaminants like lead, mercury, asbestos, PCBs, or petroleum.
These sites, mostly vacant and abandoned, were once bustling gun, textile or hat mills, car repair shops - even the neighborhood dry cleaners - that employed locals and kept the economy sizzling.
Since 1994, close to $60 million has been spent by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to help rid communities of these so-called brownfield sites, including close to $12 million for removing or containing pollutants. But to date only 19 have been completely cleaned and the cases closed, according to the EPA, hardly making a dent in a vast inventory estimated to be in the thousands.
The shuttered mills or buildings on these brownfield sites pose a host of public safety issues for municipalities that must ensure that they are secure. Over the years, many have caught fire, some more than once, spewing toxins into the air, ground and nearby rivers.
Local officials have worked to recruit developers and search for seed money from the federal and state governments to get brownfield sites back on the local tax rolls.
But progress has been slow, often taking years.
A review of the EPA's efforts in Connecticut found:
• Sites that get assessment money - to determine the extent of the pollution - often wait years to get cleanup funding. That adds time to a process that's already lengthy because of the meticulous cleanup of these contaminated sites.
• The state, not the EPA, is responsible for overseeing all cleanups. That's because there is no federal standard for what constitutes a cleanup, leaving states to set their own rules.
• Connecticut, in turn, delegates most of its authority on cleanup projects to private engineers, who are rarely fully audited - something critics say weakens project oversight.
In Connecticut, federal and state money has spurred some major success stories, such as the Brass Mill Center mall in Waterbury, which turned 90 contaminated acres into a 1.2 million-square foot shopping center; Bridgeport's Harbor Yard sports arena; and the Killingly Commons, a big-box retail complex.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has pledged $50 million over two years to identify and clean brownfield sites - with a promise to continue funding. The EPA, which budgeted roughly $170 million nationwide this year, offers help to states, cities, towns and regional partnerships to get projects moving with grants, loans and other funding.
Experts say the new state money and programs are signs of progress. But they remain wary about the way the money is spent and monitored. There are also concerns about the environmental and public health impact of leaving so many sites dormant.
"There are so many chemicals in our society, and having these highly toxic sites is clearly a hazard and needs to be taken care of," said Roger Reynolds, senior attorney at the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, an advocacy group. "That said, we've struggled over the past 30 years or so with how expensive that is and how difficult it is."
The chemicals on these sites pose "real and continuing hazards," Reynolds said. And failing to redevelop brownfields also encourages sprawl, leading to new pollution.
Economic development - especially revitalizing poor, blighted communities - is what drives the brownfield program in Connecticut and other states.
"It's not one versus the other," said Graham Stevens, the brownfields coordinator for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, in discussing the balance between economic and environmental issues.
"I think economic development is an excellent catalyst for environmental remediation," added Stevens, "The brownfields projects, at the end of the day, are real estate transactions and real estate projects, and if the development has no likelihood of success, that process will likely not result in a cleanup. The cleanup will have to come at another time through other means."
While there isn't enough money to clean up every parcel, Stevens said the state is trying to help educate local officials about what's available.
DEEP officials decide whether they want the state to maintain control of site cleanup or whether to pass it to a licensed environmental professional, or LEP. About 80 percent of brownfields are managed by LEPs, Stevens said.
The state has to sign off on work by LEPs, and can reopen a case within 24 months if there are concerns about the work. Environmentalists fear shoddy cleanups won't be discovered until after the two years is up.
Stevens defended the system, saying if an engineer does bad work the state can report him or her to the state board that governs LEPs, asking for censure or revocation of their license.
But that system is "largely by and for the LEPs," Reynolds said, something environmental advocates would like to change.
"Carrots and sticks have to be part of every incentive system," he said. "Hopefully, you can do 90 percent of it with carrots, but you've got to have the sticks."
Public safety risks
At the entryway to the town of Sprague, twin smokestacks from the mammoth Baltic Mills complex loom over the town and Shetucket River. The mill, once one of the nation's largest producers of textiles, is now a fenced-off sprawl of weeds, crumbling brick and fetid water.
First Selectman Catherine Osten knows first-hand the task of revitalizing a historic landmark, while protecting the public, following a major fire.
In 1999 at the Baltic Mills complex, children trying to free a tied canoe inside one of the buildings set it on fire, which spewed asbestos roofing and pipe materials as far as six miles away. After the fire, the EPA conducted an emergency cleanup, removing the asbestos from the site and the neighborhood.
"There are things besides the brownfield pieces of it, the public safety pieces of it," she said.
Fires have also erupted at shuttered mills in Plainfield, Somers and Waterbury.
Osten estimates it will cost about $1 million to clean the contamination from the 58,000 square foot structure that sits on the 16.5-acre brownfield site. She's confident she can tap into EPA and state grants and loans - if she can find a developer.
She worries about what's on the site, which the town owns after a foreclosure.
"It's pretty much a public safety issue," she said, noting that the building's floors are rotted through and there are other physical hazards in addition to the contamination. That's typical of a brownfield site, she said.
"Often, these canals that are around the mills have water in them that are very attractive to younger people," she added.
Environment vs. development
Undisturbed brownfield sites pose a danger to the environment, Reynolds said.
But Stevens maintains that if people are staying off abandoned land, in most cases whatever contamination is there is probably not much of a danger. Oil tanks - or pools where solvents and other chemicals were poured out - are often buried. Airborne contaminants largely stay put unless the dirt is stirred up, he said.
Cleanups that encapsulate dirty soil, instead of removing it, or otherwise seal off pollution are an effective way to manage problems, Stevens said.
"If you're not eating it or inhaling it or drinking contaminated water and it's managed appropriately and it's not going anywhere and you're confident that it will stay that way, that's an effective cleanup, Stevens said."
Brownfields in general are less dangerous than other types of environmental hazards, such as Superfund sites, said John Pendergrass, a senior attorney at the Environmental Law Institute.
But even if a government agency knows what the old factory or store was used for, it's not always certain what's in that soil or water. The unknown factors are a big deal in a brownfield-heavy state like Connecticut, said Pendergrass.
"There's a possibility that's there's something much more risky that's sitting in a community where people don't know what the risks are. A lot of brownfields are abandoned. That doesn't mean that people aren't using them," he said. "It means that they're using them in uncontrolled ways, and people can be exposed to the hazardous substances."
This story was reported under a partnership with the Connecticut Health I-Team (www.c-hit.org).