Daniel C. Walsh on the City’s Efforts to Clean Up Brownfields

Daniel C. Walsh

Daniel C. Walsh is the former Director of the City office of the Superfund and Brownfield Cleanup Program for the State Department of Environmental Conservation. Walsh studied the geochemistry of New York City landfills as a doctoral student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the Rockland County native has spent his professional career studying and helping to resolve environmental problems in and around the City.

WA day not so far off. Walsh recalls reading Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030 initiatives for cleaning up brownfield sites in New York City, and remembers how the Plan’s goals resonated with him. He had observed, first hand, the unique problems facing owners and developers of some of the 7,600 acres of contaminated land within the City who had tried to enter the State Brownfield Cleanup Program.Walsh believed the City had a major role to play in the remediation of its brownfields, but assumed that day was far off. That day came last June when Mayor Bloomberg named Walsh Director of the Office of Environmental Remediation (OER), an office created to expedite the cleanup of the City’s brownfields. Since then, Walsh and his team have been busy working on legislation that will soon be introduced at City Council to create a City brownfield cleanup program.

Why a City program? The State program has delivered high quality cleanups of heavily contaminated sites across the State, but its complex framework, in effect, excludes lesser contaminated sites throughout the City. Sites with light or moderate contamination may not qualify under the program’s strict eligibility criteria or have been rejected for lack of available funding. Other sites that may be eligible never make it into the program because owners and developers fear that the time delays, uncertainties, and other costs associated with the program are too high.

PlaNYC 2030 called for the creation of an office dedicated to promoting brownfield planning, testing, and cleanups to foster redevelopment of the thousands of acres of brownfields within the City that have not participated in the State program. After OER was created and Walsh was named Director, the next step was to create a City-sponsored cleanup program.

The City’s brownfield cleanup program will be the first such program for a major U.S. city. Walsh emphasized that the goal is not to compete with or alter the State program, but rather to pick up where the State program ends by creating an alternative program targeting the lightly to moderately contaminated sites that may not qualify for the State program. By offering incentives, the program can motivate landowners and developers to cleanup and fully utilize their contaminated properties. Walsh explained that the cleanup goals will be accomplished using an integrated approach that increases predictability, streamlines the cleanup process, and encourages community-level involvement in the remediation and redevelopment of contaminated sites.

Increasing predictability. Walsh explained that lightly to moderately contaminated sites, e.g., sites contaminated by “historic fill,” make up as much as 80 to 90 percent of brownfields in the City and do not typically qualify for the State program. Creating a cleanup program tailored for these sites helps to fill the gaps in the State program. City sites tend to involve less complex environmental problems, often permitting the use of “presumptive remedies,” which are predesigned, pre-vetted cleanup plans that have been proven in the field. Walsh explained that, ideally, the City program could deliver a cleanup, from the point of entry to approved cleanup plan, in three to four months, a substantial reduction in time from the State program. Walsh believes that this will be a major step towards breaking down the perception that cleanup programs, by definition, are long, difficult, and unpredictable.

Streamlining the process. A developer interested in cleaning up a City site under State guidance may need approvals from multiple City and State agencies before entering the State program. OER has developed cooperative relationships with many of these agencies through which OER will act as a go-between for the agencies and the developers, lessening the administrative burden and providing a “one stop shop” for parties seeking to cleanup their sites.

OER recognizes the need to provide participants in the City program with a release from liability analogous to that of the State program. Walsh explained that, as an interim step, OER and the DEC are developing a Memorandum of Understanding under which DEC will agree to take no action against developers that follow the rigorous cleanup guidelines created by the City. As a final step to ensure broad, long-term liability protection, the City is also working on submitting a bill to the State legislature that will provide developers with liability protection from State agencies.

Increasing awareness. In addition to working with the developers and owners, OER has created a variety of tools to ensure community participation in the cleanup process. Walsh stated that pro bono consulting services will be available for communities during the design stages of cleanup plans, and community protection plans will be added to cleanup plans, clearly identifying, in lay terms, the precautions that will be taken on behalf of the community during the cleanup process.

OER’s efforts to streamline the cleanup process for developers and owners of brownfields, as well as its focus on engaging local communities in the process, are innovative, and if successful, could become a model for other large, urban cities to follow.    — Peter Schikler

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