The Commonwealth's Waste Site Cleanup Program: Building on 20 Years of Success
OP-ED COLUMN By Kenneth Kimmell
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is a leader when it comes to the remediation of contaminated properties thanks to our first-in-the-nation waste site cleanup rules that require responsible parties and their licensed consultants to assess and address problem sites. This innovative program resulted in the permanent cleanup of 1,276 toxic sites in 2012 and 30,879 sites and counting since the regulation was implemented 20 years ago.
As a vote of confidence in the success of the waste site cleanup program, and under Governor Deval Patrick's directive that all state agencies update their regulations, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) will soon publish amendments to the regulations. The amendments will build on the program's 20 years of experience and further streamline and simplify the process, without in any way lowering our strict environmental standards.
These changes will result in better cleanups, increased incentives for developers to clean up and redevelop contaminated sites, and better information for local communities.
But the waste site cleanup program wasn't always this way.
Back in 1993, Massachusetts had a serious problem. The Commonwealth had thousands of contaminated parcels (a legacy of our industrial past), and our laws required MassDEP to micro-manage every step in the clean-up of these sites. The result? MassDEP could not possibly keep up with the workload. Only about 20 sites got cleaned up every year, and real estate transactions virtually ground to a halt because banks were waiting for governmental approvals on thousands of cleanups before they would lend.
We needed to find a better way - and we did.
Twenty years ago, we launched an experiment. We designed a new system by talking to the business community, environmental and community advocates, real estate and legal stakeholders and others. MassDEP set strict cleanup standards to protect public health and the environment, but private "licensed site professionals" (known as LSPs) would figure out the best way to meet those standards and call the shots, subject to MassDEP auditing the results and taking enforcement action against LSPs or property owners who cut corners and did sub-par cleanups.
The improvement was immediate, and dramatic.
Within four years the number of waste sites assessed, cleaned up and closed out increased 100-fold, and an average of more than 1,500 sites per year have been remediated ever since. Banks and developers now have confidence in the program and "Brownfields" redevelopment - where developers run into historic contamination - has become main stream. MassDEP staff has been freed up to focus on sites with the highest risks, or those that are high-priority economic development sites.
At the time we launched this reform, some likened it to "the fox-guarding-the-henhouse" and feared that privatizing the program with LSPs and removing MassDEP's day-to-day oversight would endanger the public. But this hasn't happened. We audit 50 percent of these sites every year, and rarely have found instances in which the cleanup compromised public health. In fact, the public has been far better served by this program, because contaminated sites are being cleaned up more quickly, rather than languishing.
The lesson is that it works best when government sets the goal, but harnesses the ingenuity and resources of the private sector to help meet them.
Having delivered on the promise of faster and better cleanups for the past 20 years, the newly updated Massachusetts waste site cleanup program is again poised to meet public, environmental and business interests in the years ahead.
Kenneth Kimmell is the Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection