Conn. tries new cleanups at dirty industrial sites

WATERBURY, Conn. (AP) — To Joseph Vrabely Jr., the cavernous, century-old industrial building on a site polluted by oil and metals is a thing of beauty.

With giant cranes inside the 700-foot-long workspace, the building that once housed one of the city’s largest brass manufacturers is perfectly suited for Vrabely’s company, Atlantic Steel & Processing LLC, which cuts steel to produce tools, automotive parts and other products.

“As long as the building is safe structurally, this is exactly what we need,” said Vrabely, the company president.

Vrabely is planning to expand operations at the site because of a new law creating a state fund to pay for costly and complicated environmental cleanups of so-called brownfields across the state. His company has occupied a portion the building for 12 years, but he was reluctant to further develop the former site of the Chase Brass & Copper Co. until it was chosen for a cleanup effort.

A brownfield is a property that has been polluted, typically by manufacturing or industrial use decades ago, and is considered for redevelopment for a new use.

Connecticut’s new law, designed to promote economic development, requires property owners to pay into the fund 5 percent of the land’s value. The recently enacted state budget also includes $50 million over two years to help pay for brownfields cleanup.

Increased funding is a break from the past when brownfield development went begging for money.

“We’ve had trickles of dollars, two, three million,” said Rep. Jeff Berger, a Waterbury Democrat and House chairman of the legislature’s Commerce Committee.

The law includes a measure that backers say is perhaps more valuable than money: The legislation that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed July 8 shields developers from the prospect of liability if contamination leaches onto their property. That is a key provision to environmentalists and economic development officials who say developers often abandon their plans at the prospect of lawsuits over the source or cause of pollution.

“It takes the risk out of the project for the developer,” said Daniel Esty, commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “Now he knows what he has to do and he’s not got this unlimited, uncertain liability all around that chilled a lot of people from taking on these projects. I think this is a big breakthrough.”

Graham J. Stevens, director of constituent affairs and land management at the state environmental agency, said hundreds of former factory and mill sites that operated during Connecticut’s heyday as a New England manufacturing center could be eligible for brownfields cleanup. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Willimantic produced thread, Manchester manufactured silk, New Britain was known for hardware, Hartford manufactured guns, Danbury made hats and Waterbury produced brass.

“Every city and village started at a site that became a brownfield.” Stevens said.

Connecticut’s new law won broad support from environmentalists and business groups, achieving rare unanimity in Senate and House votes in June.

“This bill is motherhood and apple pie,” said Dennis Waslenchuk, principal of Aquademia Environmental Consulting in New London.

Waslenchuk is critical of some aspects of the law. In their zeal to enact the brownfields legislation, lawmakers allowed developers to conduct a superficial study at the site that could fail to identify major environmental problems, he said. Only later would developers run into major problems such as the discovery of contamination not initially found, possibly leading to the project’s collapse, he said.

Waslenchuk said the new law does not alter his enthusiasm about working on brownfields, “but it would change my approach to the client. I would educate him as to the potential confusion that this very superficial lure creates.”

Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s office of solid waste and emergency response, said Connecticut is not much different from cities and other states using a variety of financing to pay for costly brownfields cleanups.

For example, a former automotive radiator plant in Dayton, Ohio, is being transformed into a site for aerospace and advanced materials technologies, according to the EPA. Financing came from EPA grants and a multimillion-dollar settlement with the former General Motors Corp., the federal agency said.

Connecticut’s new law authorizes the state Department of Economic and Community Development to choose 32 sites a year for brownfields development.

In Waterbury, the site used by Atlantic Steel & Processing and now being cleaned up was once home to Chase Brass & Copper Co., one of the city’s largest brass manufacturers and maker of thousands of items such as plumbing, ammunition shell cases, lipstick holders and castings in its mile-long mill. It left Waterbury in the late 1960s.

Following a succession of owners, the property — the largest tax delinquent ever in Waterbury, owing $4.5 million, according to city officials — was taken by the city in 2010 using eminent domain. Clean-up and building demolition have begun on the 30-acre site at a cost of nearly $16 million. In addition to Atlantic Steel & Processing, the site will house a consolidated city Department of Public Works by 2014.

Workers have already dug up 30 underground oil tanks that were used to supply power at the brass manufacturer, and oil-soaked portions of wood floors are next to be hauled away.

Waterbury Mayor Michael Jarjura said he’s pleased the pace could pick up to clean old industrial sites in his city, though it’s still far from perfection.

“I think it has been incremental progress,” he said. “I don’t know we’re at Shangri-La.”

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