Late this past fall, Cindy Quast, an environmental engineer with Stanley Consultants’ Iowa City Office, invited Blue Planet Green Living to visit a brownfield site. Quast, a 20-year veteran of environmental consulting, has been cleaning up brownfields for more than 10 years. Joe Hennager and I joined Quast at the western edge of Davenport, Iowa, for a quick course in Brownfields 101. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
A chill wind cuts through my coat, and I instantly regret having left my gloves in the car. On the far side of the highway where we have parked, wetlands serve as a buffer zone for the Mississippi River. Eagles nest in the trees high above, soaring over the water to catch their food. A few feet from the busy highway on the near side, environmental engineer Cindy Quast is talking with two men. They stand at the bottom of a small hill that borders a long, private driveway.
Assessing the Situation
One of the men, Wyatt McCain, is taking soil samples from the base of the hill. The other man, Daniel Cook, wears the uniform of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR). We walk together to the far end of the driveway, where McCain begins sampling again. Quast and Cook take turns patiently explaining to us the work being done on the site and why it’s important.
“For years, this property, known as the Zenith Site, was used as an unauthorized dump site for auto fluff,” Quast tells us. The land was donated to the City of Davenport, which is cleaning up the property and hopes to restore it to industrial use. Quast’s job today — or one of them — is to assess the surrounding property to determine the level of contamination that exists outside of the dump site and compare it to the contamination on the site.
Meanwhile, I catch myself thinking, Auto fluff doesn’t sound so bad. But Quast soon sets me straight. It sounds like such a harmless thing, auto fluff, yet it’s anything but innocuous. “Auto fluff is ground up batteries, car seats, dashboards, and whatever is not salvageable from junked cars,” Quast explains. It contains heavy metals and organic contaminants. Hardly “harmless.”
“The City of Davenport acquired this land to clean it up,” she says. They began the process by writing a $200,000 Brownfields Assessment grant application to EPA. When the grant was awarded the city used it to hire Stanley Consultants, based in Muscatine, Iowa.
For any brownfield site, the first phase of the environmental cleanup process is the Phase I Environmental Site Assessment. This requires visiting the site and reviewing historical records, such as types and amounts of chemicals used on the property and what products were produced there, if any. Based on the historical records and the site visit, a qualified environmental professional such as those at Stanley Consultants determines whether it’s necessary to proceed to the next phase.
The second phase, which Stanley Consultants is completing now, is sample collection.
The “background samples” Quast and McCain are taking from soil on adjacent properties will determine the level of lead contamination in the vicinity, but not on the property itself. “The entire area is industrial,” Quast says, “so we anticipate finding some lead in all of the samples.”
Quast and McCain have not only collected samples here next to the property, but also across the highway in the city-owned wetlands. Chances are, we learn, the samples near the wetlands won’t show much lead.
And that’s a good thing, especially since the wetlands are a buffer zone for the Mississippi River. Just to be sure, drillers later today will install a groundwater monitoring well adjacent to the property to enable groundwater sample collection.
One goal is to clean up the site so that no contamination reaches the wetlands or other off-site locations. Even if contamination does exist, Quast says, “Once the source is no longer there, the wetlands should start to clean itself up.” That’s an encouraging thought.
Liability Protection for the Property Owner
Cook is on the site today because the DNR is integrally involved in all brownfield cleanups in the state.
“Normally,” Cook explains, “a contaminated site cleanup is regulated under Chapter 133 (a section of the Iowa Administrative Code [IAC] concerning contaminated sites).” Under the Iowa Land Recycling Program (Chapter 137 of IAC), if a property owner wants increased liability protection, they can do a bit more work and get a “No Further Action Certificate.”
The certificate gives limited liability protection from any legal action to force more cleanup. This increased protection is also provided by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) through a Memorandum of Understanding with DNR. “If it’s good enough for the Land Recycling Program, it’s good enough for the EPA,” Cook adds.
These 12 acres have been used as a dump since the mid-1970s. The owners took a path many brownfield owners take: They donated the property to the city, giving them a tax break, and avoiding expensive fines and fees for cleaning up the property themselves.
Setting a Baseline for Cleanup
Once the background contamination — contamination from the properties surrounding the brownfield site — is established, that information will be compared to the contamination in the site itself. If the sampling shows widespread contamination, that level serves as a baseline for the area. The owners of the site (in this case the City of Davenport) can then subtract the background contamination from the contamination contributed to the area by the site, telling how much cleanup the brownfield site actually will require.
For example, if the background contamination is considered to be X and the site contamination is Y, the amount of required cleanup needed will be determined by subtracting Y from X. But to complicate the issue, there are different standards for safe levels of contamination, depending on the ultimate land use: house, playground, or industrial use. Once they decide to which level they’d like to clean it up, those are the standards they must use.
In this case, the decision is a simple one. Because there is to be an environmental covenant covering this site, there can be no residential use; the industrial standard will apply.
At that point, Quast explains, Stanley Consultants will do what’s called ABCA: Analysis of Brownfield Cleanup Alternatives. Once they’ve completed the analysis, they will propose three cleanup options to the EPA. “We have to tell them which option we recommend and why it’s most feasible,” she says. “We look at the cost and the difficulty of implementation. Then we make a proposal to the city, to the DNR, and to the EPA. We tell them what we think is the best way to protect health today and minimize the health risk based on future use of the site,” Quast says.
Considering the Options
What are the options for this site?
“The best way to remove the contamination is to remove the auto fluff — about 20 feet deep.” With a site that’s 75 yards across and about ½ mile long, we’re talking about “massive removal.” Contamination removal including the hauling and disposal could rack up “about $5 or $6 million for the ultimate cleanup,” Quast says.
But that’s the most expensive option and may not be the final recommendation.
“Besides cost, are there other factors that will determine whether to go this route?” we ask the group.
“There are ecological limits,” Cook says. “If the DNR finds endangered species or if we see dead fish, the clean-up standards will be [tightened] to protect the species.”
Asked for an example, Cook tells us about the Iowa Army Ammunition Plant in Burlington, Iowa, where the DNR found the rare Indiana bat. The EPA Superfund cleanup had to take into account the safety of the bats. “They couldn’t do the cleanup during nesting season, so they did it in early fall and in the spring.”
Stanley Consultants, too, monitors for endangered species, Quast adds. So far, no endangered species have been identified at the Zenith site.
Cook describes another option. “They could cap the site with four feet of clean soil on top of it. This requires a two-foot layer of impermeable soil and a minimum of two feet of uncompacted soil. This would bring it up to residential standards.” He adds, “A capped site must be maintained. “
Quast then tells us a third possibility, a combination of the other two. “We could remove the most-contaminated soil, then fill it in with clean material and cap the entire remaining site,” she says.
Although it’s not certain yet, what appears most likely is that Stanley will recommend capping the site.
“What if contamination is found in the wetlands?” I ask.
“We’ll get the contaminated soil out of the water and put it back on dry land,” McCain says. Then the soil would either be removed to the landfill or capped.
But the lead they’ve found on the site itself isn’t likely to have traveled clear across the highway to the wetlands.
“Lead doesn’t like to move,” Cook says. “Benzene will dissolve in water, but lead sticks to the soil. Lead travels by erosion, so it’s important to prevent sediment transfer through erosion. Capping works to prevent the spread of just about any type of contamination.”
“These sites are everywhere,” Quast tells us. “Brownfield is as much perception of contamination as it is reality. Sometimes we do the study, and there’s nothing there.”
“No one wants to buy brownfield land, which is often in the center of a city,” Cook says. “So they go out and tear up farmland.”
“There are a lot of creative ways to use brownfield sites,” Quast adds, “but it all depends on the site. For example, we submitted a proposal to convert a brownfield site to urban agriculture.”
“Brownfields are such a good job creator. There’s a lot of stimulus money to put into brownfields today,” Cook says. “And it’s good for the local economy. It helps to stop the ‘doughnut effect.’ That’s where the old city dies in the center, and people keep moving their businesses farther out. No one wants to develop on sites that are all run down. So, by cleaning up brownfields, we restore the center of the city. The take-home message is, brownfield cleanups are good for the economy, good for the environment, and good for preserving farmland.”
Opportunities to “Do Great Things”
A little later, we’re standing next to our parked vehicles on the edge of Hwy 61. With cars whizzing by at 60 mph, we’re more than just a little vulnerable. But Quast and Cook have to oversee some work being done in the ditch next to the road.
We are joined by Cynthia Ricks-Maccotan, Economic Development Program Manager for the City of Davenport. She tells us about plans the city may consider to revitalize this particular site.
“The Community Planning and Economic Development Department for the City of Davenport is actively working to clean up and reuse brownfields. We want to grow business and revitalize areas of the city for community benefit. Revitalization might mean creating jobs, planting gardens, or providing open spaces.”
“If the cost to cap this site is doable — if we have the resources — we could put in strong footings, elevate the land, cap it, and make it a public rail offload facility.”
A rail station at the western gateway to the City of Davenport would solve multiple problems for local industries, according to Ricks-Maccotan.
Currently, there are two private rail stations, one at the far eastern edge of the city and one several miles away to the west. When severe flooding occurs, as it often does, the Zenith property would provide a flood-free location for trucks to unload freight to the western and central parts of the city.
And, because an industrial park is already situated next to the site, a new rail station would give those businesses better shipping options, and increase economic development for the area.
Finally, locating a rail station here, along a highway and at the western edge, would cut congestion through the city.
How will the City of Davenport pay for all this? Through an Economic Development Agency (EDA) grant. “EDA won’t pay for passenger rail,” Ricks-Maccotan says, “but they will pay for ‘public, industrial use.’ ” The city owns the land, and could contract with the railroad for the station, opening up new markets and economic development for the western part of the city.
“The big issue, though,” Ricks-Maccotan adds, “is to protect the environment and natural habitats. It would be awesome if we could leave this as open space. People sit out here along the road just to watch the eagles. In the winter, when the eagles come out, some will land on top of a truck, ride a couple of minutes, then hop off. It’s an awesome spot for wildlife. If the toxins weren’t so high, it would be a great place for a park.
“If we can clean up the site by capping it, then let’s provide economic development. The businesses on the west end are landlocked; they can’t expand. If we cap this site and make it a commercial area with a rail spur, we could even extend public bus service here for their workers.
“There are lots of opportunities to do great things,” Ricks-Maccotan says. “We just have to decide which one.”
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Imagine that a local youth organization has construction plans for an unoccupied portion of the property they’ve owned for over fifty years. When the organization approaches the bank to refinance the property, instead of being granted funds to complete the construction, they discover that the soil and/or groundwater is potentially contaminated. Plans for their new activity center and playground are put on hold when they find themselves entangled in the costly activities of further investigation and potential remediation.
Unfortunately, this situation is not uncommon. The property owner caught in such difficulties isn’t always a non-profit organization, as in the case of a recent client of the environmental engineering company I work for. Too often, landowners who have not abused their property find themselves having to pay for the actions of previous occupants, who either intentionally or unknowingly contaminated the land before selling it.
The good news is that current real estate buyers can protect themselves through due diligence, by making “all appropriate inquiries into the previous ownership, uses, and environmental conditions of a property,” according to the EPA. By taking these precautions, landowners may qualify for certain liability protections under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as the Superfund program.
Commercial real estate transactions are regularly accompanied by a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (E.S.A.). These assessments conduct all appropriate inquiries* into historical and current use of the property in order to identify recognized environmental conditions (R.E.C.s). An R.E.C. identifies the presence of any hazardous substance or petroleum product, and includes indications of an existing release, past release, or material threat of release of any hazardous substances or petroleum products.
Investigations like these emerged in the 1970s, due to regulations, lawsuits, and prosecutions that assisted potential buyers in assessing the risk associated with purchasing commercial and/or industrial property. In addition, they provided preliminary information regarding any necessary clean-up activities.
A Phase I E.S.A. is conducted by an environmental professional (E.P.), and consists of a site reconnaissance, interviews, and records review. The E.P. generates a report that summarizes known or suspected R.E.C.s, and typically makes recommendations regarding further investigation. Such recommendations are based on the absence or presence of environmental conditions associated with the property, as well as the E.P.’s professional experience. Should the E.P. recommend intrusive investigation, the client may choose to begin Phase II activities.
A Phase II Assessment typically includes sampling the soil and/or groundwater. The E.P. analyzes the samples to determine the presence and/or extent of the contamination. Occasionally, the E.P. will also conduct air sampling to determine the presence of radon or vapor intrusion. The test results determine whether any further action is required.
When considering a real estate transaction, we all want to make wise and prudent investments. As a real estate buyer, remember to conduct due diligence before taking advantage of any “great deal.” Sometimes a property is priced low because the seller knows or suspects it will need costly remediation work. By making “all appropriate inquiries,” you may save yourself from purchasing a property that needs remediation or from being responsible for the cleanup, should you decide to make the purchase.
But even wise and prudent investments may intentionally include remediation work. Remediation is a predictable expense when a buyer purchases a brownfield property. Fortunately, the EPA may assist with the cost of brownfield remediation. By remediating the property, the new owner both revitalizes the site and provides productive economic and green space use through the EPA Brownfields and Land Revitalization program.
*The EPA recognizes the ASTM E1527-05 Standard Practice for Environmental Site Assessments: Phase I Environmental Site Assessment Process as fully compliant with the AAI final rule. For more information regarding Direct Final Rule on All Appropriate Inquiries refer to the EPA website (Negotiated Rulemaking Committee on All Appropriate Inquiries | Brownfields and Land Revitalization | US EPA).
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