Transform Contaminated Properties into Downtown Assets

Transform Contaminated Properties into Downtown Assets

Colette Santasieri, PhD
Executive Director, NJ Brownfields Assistance Center @ NJIT

January 14, 2021

Many New Jersey downtowns contain vacant or underutilized commercial and industrial properties that are contaminated or perceived to be contaminated based on past uses and building materials. These ‘brownfields’ include former factories and mills, closed gas stations and auto repair shops, former dry cleaners, and other land uses. The redevelopment of brownfields are unique opportunities for New Jersey’s downtowns – to spur economic development, generate jobs, increase property values, reduce sprawl, and develop community needed assets such as mixed-use development, retail, health care facilities, and entertainment venues, just to name a few. Before these properties can be placed back into productive reuse, they must navigate the New Jersey regulatory process that ensures contaminated sites are properly remediated and rendered safe for redevelopment.

It is commonly said that the redevelopment of a brownfield site is like any other real estate development, with a twist. That twist is the potential for contamination of soil, water, and indoor air, as well as hazardous building materials. Prior to redevelopment, the property must go through a process to determine if contamination exists, and if so, the appropriate way to deal with that contamination. These necessary environmental investigations, as well as the remediation of contaminants, add time and expenses to the typical real estate development process, but are essential to safe guarding the public. Provided below (and shown on the graphic) is a brief overview of the journey a brownfield travels to render it safe for reuse.

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A brownfield site’s journey through the New Jersey regulatory process begins with the hiring of a Licensed Site Remediation Professional (LSRP). The LSRP effectively ‘steps into the shoes’ of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) and is responsible for oversight of the environmental investigations and remediation in accordance with NJDEP’s applicable standards and regulations ensuring that the ultimate cleanup of the contamination is protective of public health, safety, and the environment.

Each step in the environmental investigation process answers a basic question asked of the potentially contaminated property. The environmental investigation of a property begins with the conduct of a Preliminary Assessment (PA). This assessment answers the question “Do any areas of concern (AOCs) exist – that is, is there a potential for contamination on the property?” The PA involves determining the site’s past uses via a records search, review of aerial photographs and historic maps, and interviews conducted with people knowledgeable about the property; review of records and files indicting known contamination on site (such as a spill); and a site inspection for visible signs of potential contamination (such as aboveground storage tanks or soil staining).

If it is determined that there is the potential for contamination based on past uses and/or current property conditions, the next step in the environmental investigation is to conduct a Site Investigation (SI). The SI answers the question – Is there actual contamination on the property? Samples are collected, and various analyses are performed on those samples based on the present and/or past usage of the property. Samples may include soil, sediment, groundwater, surface water, air, and/or building materials. In order to determine if any further action is required, the laboratory data is compared to the applicable NJDEP standards. If the concentrations are below the applicable standards, no further action is required. If the concentrations are above the applicable standards, further action is required. All of this information is then captured in a Site Investigation Report.

If the SI shows contamination exists above applicable NJDEP standards, the next step is to conduct a Remedial Investigation (RI) which answers the question – “What is the nature and extent of the contamination?” The RI involves more detailed sampling and analyses to fully characterize the type and extent of contamination. This step concludes with the issuance of a Remedial Investigation Report (RIR).

Once the environmental investigations have been completed, the next steps involve determining how to deal with the contamination, and then ridding the property of the contamination or safely containing the contaminants on site. Based on the results of the RI, a Remedial Action Work Plan (RAWP) is prepared that details how the contamination is going to be addressed. Then the Remedial Action (RA) takes place. The RA may involve excavation of contaminated soil, or capping the site, or pumping and treating ground water, or other measures to render the site safe for redevelopment. The remedial actions taken will depend on the type and extent of contamination, as well as the proposed reuse of the property. Knowing the ultimate reuse of the site before the site is remediated is very important.

Once the Remedial Action is completed, a Remedial Action Report is prepared that documents the remediation activities that took place, and summarizes the confirmation sampling and analyses used to demonstrate the effectiveness of the Remedial Action. The final step is the Response Action Outcome (RAO) which is issued by the LSRP to memorialize the completion of remediation.

Not all brownfield sites are contaminated. When that is the case, the regulatory process is not as arduous, and ends after the Preliminary Assessment or after the Site Investigation has been completed. For contaminated properties, the time it takes to move from the Preliminary Assessment to the issuance of the Response Action Outcome depends on many variables, including the size of the property, the type and extent of contamination, and the availability of funds to undertake these activities.

For more information about the regulatory process, or any other brownfield related topics, contact Colette Santasieri, PhD, Executive Director, at santasieri@njit.edu or visit our website: www.njit.edu/njbrownfields.

For NJ county and local government entities seeking free brownfields guidance, contact njbrownfields@njit.edu.