The Greening of the Brownfields
By Dave Fehling, StateImpact Texas
For developers of housing or commercial projects in Texas, bringing contaminated, blighted lots back to life can be full of challenges. But sometimes it works; for example, one developer has turned a toxic site into a waterfront neighborhood.
These “brownfields” are some of the ugliest places in Texas: Old industrial properties where there’s often toxic waste still in the soil and groundwater.
With cities like Dallas and Houston redeveloping their urban cores, brownfields are a growing concern.
In one of those transitional neighborhoods a couple of miles east of downtown Houston where new townhouses sit next to abandoned houses, some carpenters are making repairs to one of the old homes.
Across the street is a huge vacant lot, nothing but grass, surrounded by a security fence with signs that say “Contaminated” and “No trespassing.” The site was once used to recycle toxic waste. Thousands of drums were left behind, tainting the soil and groundwater.
But then, in 2006, in the first deal of its kind, the EPA worked out an agreement with a Houston developer.
The developer agreed to buy the Superfund site and pay to finish the cleanup. The intent was to someday build hundreds of homes here.
But six years and an economic downturn later, not all has gone as planned. The contaminated soil has been removed, but the groundwater remains a concern.
The Houston company, Fenway Development, said in an email, “Technically, this site is not ready for redevelopment at this time and we are considering our options.”
John Slavich is a Dallas lawyer who has guided hundreds of brownfield projects through long and complicated legal processes.
The most challenging, Slavich says, are those Superfund sites, often the most seriously polluted of all, and whose clean-ups must meet demanding federal standards.
“They are much more difficult, and in fact I rarely work on those sites just because you go through a long, arduous bureaucratic process,” Slavich said.
By contrast, brownfield sites overseen by the state of Texas can have less stringent cleanup requirements.
“But I do caution, brownfields aren’t for everybody,” said Robert Colangelo in Chicago, a national expert on brownfields.
He says it’s tough to bring them back to life, estimating that of some half-million brownfields nationwide, only 20 percent would ever make economic sense to redevelop. “There’s clearly sites that probably won’t be cleaned up in our lifetimes,” he said.
But in Texas, hundreds have been remade. Another company, Johnson Development, did one in Webster, near Galveston Bay.
“You can see what was there in this photo and you can see what’s here today,” said General Manager Bob Douglas. “There’s just no trace of it.”
Douglas was sitting in his pickup truck, looking at photos of what had been at the site where he’s parked.
“This was an old HL&P power plant,” he said. “The one structure here was, oh, maybe 10 stories tall.”
The power plant is now gone, brought down with dynamite in 2007.
But the old buildings weren’t all that needed removal. There were several pockets of contamination, some lead in one spot, some mercury in another. Tons of soil and a whole pond had to be removed.
Texas environmental regulators had to sign off on the cleanup.
“Nothing here from a heavy metals standpoint or anything of a toxic nature that would hurt you on this site,” Douglas said.
So far, 50 homes have been built on the site, with plans for 400 more, plus apartments and a marina.