Brownfield Remediation

    The appointment by Governor Dannel Malloy of Waterbury attorney Gary O’Connor as co-chair of his environmental group, may give our brownfield remediation a boost.  Having been the co-chair of the state’s Brownfields Task Force for several years, O’Connor ought to be well aware of the challenges involved and the badly needed action.

  The East Enders of our city may have been wondering what is going on at the two sites, which have been “in the works” for years, and might need some prodding. The Mattaco site on East Main may finally be developed, much to the relief of the neighborhood. According to the Republican-American the complex will consist of a funeral home, a community center and (glory be!) a medical building instead of a banquet facility. Well, after 18 years of trying, nobody will hold their breath on this one.

   The EPA Superfund site at the former Scovill landfill on Store Avenue has been slowly chugging along, but neighbors should not expect relief. On March 2nd, EPA hosted a meeting at the WARC, with a presentation on the project status and future planning. The EPA has concluded Phase III of its investigation and assessment of the contamination and its effect on the soil, groundwater etc. A variety of chemicals, including traces of PCBs were located. The findings are being compiled and EPA expects to be in position, by this summer, to have reviewed potential health hazards etc. By next winter, the EPA plans to present the results for public comment.

   Next on the EPA’s agenda would be the final site cleanup plan. There is a catch here. The EPA received $500,000 from the bankruptcy case of Saltire, the successor of Scovill, and these funds have been used up. The EPA, apparently, has a “treshold” of $25 million for remediation costs. Should that be insufficient (as it easily might), a Remedial Review Board would have to approve additional funding. This might take a while in this distressed economy and rising costs.

   Now the bad news… the EPA limits the extent of remediation to an area shown on a map provided at the March 2nd meeting. West of the Store Avenue, the outline does not include the residential properties along the Monroe Avenue. This means that property owners will have to deal with any issues resulting from real or alleged contamination from the site. Lawyers rejoice! A representative of the State Health Department was present at the meeting and stressed that, jointly with the Waterbury Health Department, they will discuss their findings with the site’s neighbors. It is very important, therefore, that owners of properties adjacent to the site should follow the developments very closely and show up in numbers at future meetings.

   We have a couple of other active remediation projects. I will not include the North End school project, since it does not involve a truly industrial brownfield. The largest of the pending projects is that of 30 acre Waterbury Industrial Commons, formerly Chase Brass, on Thomaston Avenue.  A federal grant of $15 million, compensating for past defense work, is already being applied. The city would like to erect a $25 million “consolidated public works facility” on the site, to be paid for by a $60.4 million bond. After grants, the cost to taxpayers is quoted at $41.3 million. That’s ominous math.

   At this point it is an open-ended project. The ownership of the site is still in question. It is currently owned by the Waterbury Industrial Commons Associates, which owes the city $4.3 million in back taxes. A decision by the city to take over the site under eminent domain is still pending.

   The city has contracted the firm of Woodard & Curran with the overall planning and project estimates are already escalating. I believe that, at this point, the Jarjura administration should consider the feasibility of this grandiose project. Based on the history of the usual delays and under-estimates, the eventual cost could, loosely guessing, end up 30% to 50% higher. Considering the current status of the state economy and the fiscal burdens carried by Waterbury’s taxpayers, continuation of the project beyond cleanup would be hard to realize. Even after the site would have been cleaned up, could Waterbury afford the cost of the yet to be planned facility, with  the equipment and staffing involved? An added issue is the fact that part of the existing structures involved is occupied by viable, tax-paying tenants. How would the project details be juggled without inconveniencing the tenants to the point of them leaving the city?

   Thus, unless the planning will be realistic and a strict oversight will have been imposed, the project will become another milch cow for all the entities involved.

   The Cherry Street Industrial Center project ought to get serious attention because of the issues involved. The site is practically part of the downtown, and it is an ugly, cancerous growth affecting both North Elm and Cherry streets, as well as Cherry Avenue connecting them. An important factor is  that we have an interested party, Bender Plumbing & Supply, willing to expand on the remediated land, by investing $4 million into building a 63,000 sq.ft. structure  This would mean jobs and added tax revenue for the city. The Dept. Of Economic and Community Development has granted the city $650,000 for demolishing two existing buildings (the former Matthews & Willard plant) on site. What has become known as the Cherry Street Industrial Park, has received a federal grant of $1.14 million, an EPA  grant of $400,000 and NU grant of $20,000. A total of $2,21 million has been channeled into WDC, so let’s start the fund-sapping system ticking. At present, it is yet another open-ended project, without any commitment to accountability or tentative completion date.

   It ought to be clear that, since the Brass Mill Center Mall project, brownfield remediation in Waterbury has not functioned. Funds have been absorbed and dissipated without any tangible results.

   To appreciate the parameters involved in a brownfield remediation and site utilization project, let us consider the Brass Center Mall. The project had been formed in 1993. NVDC, the forerunner of WDC, coordinated the project on the city’s behalf. The cleanup of the former Scovill Manufacturing Co. site was funded by $36 million in state and federal grants, with Homart Development Co. providing $120 million for construction of the actual mall. Out of the cleanup budget, the legal costs amounted to roughly $1 million, with Homart spending another $1 million. 118,000 tons of contaminated soil and debris had to be removed; sections of the Mad River were re-routed. General Growth Properties, which had bought Homart, broke ground for construction in 1995, completing it in 1998. To be noted are the sources of cleanup funding: political (John Rowland was the sitting governor) and a large corporate owner eager to complete the construction. Both were  critical factors, which are key to any site remediation and utilization project.

   Successful brownfield remediation and redevelopment in Waterbury will depend on our leaders in Hartford. The following are my comments on challenges Governor Malloy and his newly appoiinted DEP boss, Dan Esty, should recognize and act upon forcefully.

   • The restoration of a business friendly state. We cannot expect investors, domestic or foreign, to show interest unless the tax structure, energy costs, simplified permitting and other issues will have been resolved, or at least committed to. It is ludicrous to assume that, under the present circumstances, potential users will line up once a brownfield would have been remediated. Connecticut must change its economic orientation. Unless these changes are discernible, our state’s location and capabilities alone will not attract private investment and federal funding. The fact that a given site may currently be a brownfield, on the other hand, will not discourage its development if its future profitability will be envisioned by an investor, as in the case of the Brass City Center. 

   • Curbing of the DEP/EPA bureaucracy. These organizations are oblivious to any logic regarding the purpose of brownfield remediation. The true objective is re-use of the land for economically beneficial purposes. The cleanup should reflect the gainful utilization of a given site. The same standard can’t apply in every case.

   A school, housing or healthcare facility would require a thorough cleanup, preventing any harmful effects to the users from any remnants of past contamination. A manufacturing plant, which itself might create what would be considered contamination at some future date, could be built on a capped base. Technology exists to seal off any potentially harmful seepage. Areas open to ventilation, such as a truck stop, open parking garage, lumber or metal storage could be safely built on a minimally cleaned brownfield, on a sufficiently asphalted base. Even if only cleared of debris, a site could be leased to a tree grower (e.g. Christmas trees) or some non-food enterprise.

   Under the current EPA practices, some inhabited sites could be considered “contaminated” at some future date. To illustrate the sheer idiocy of the situation, consider the  apartment buildings and even a childcare facility within the “Superfund” perimeter on Store Avenue. If a developer wanted to tear them down and erect new structures on the site, the DEP would condemn them under their current standards and demand costly testing and remediation.

   Mr. Esty should inject some common sense into this bureaucracy gone wild. As for our city administration, it would have to assume a more constructive stance in directing and controlling any state and federal brownfield remediation grants, as well as funds bonded in the name of us, the taxpayers.