Building on former waste sites increasingly popular

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DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Mark Mehringer admits he and his wife have had their doubts about buying a house built on a former Denver airport runway.

They knew that after more than 60 years as Stapleton International Airport, parts of the vast property were contaminated with asbestos and deicing chemicals. But they bought into the newly formed Denver neighborhood, confident the land was scrubbed clean and harmless.

Still, they can't help but wonder.

"With a cleanup like that, it's to pretty high standards, but we do occasionally wonder about certain spots in the lawn where things don't grow well," Mehringer said.

Researchers, developers and planners said Mehringer's experience is typical - a bit concerned but ultimately trusting that their new homes are safe. It's a big reason thousands of former industrial sites, known as brownfields, are being redeveloped for residential, commercial and retail use across the country.

Since a federal brownfield program began in 1995, the Environmental Protection Agency has spent more than $11 billion to help assess pollution on more than 11,800 properties. More than 500 of those have been redeveloped.

Just like other real estate projects, brownfield rehabs have slowed recently as the nation's credit problems worsen, but experts said a combination of factors make it likely they'll remain popular with developers and residents.

Chief among the advantages is the help offered by the EPA. Incentives include revolving loan funds and grants for site assessment, cleanup and revitalization. In addition, at least 23 states offer incentives, such as tax credits or abatements.

A change in federal law also encouraged developers by resolving another question.

As Sarah Coffin, an assistant professor of public policy at St. Louis University, put it: "What happens if a project moves forward and is completed? There's still a big pile of goo there that needs to be cleaned up and all of a sudden a developer or property owner is left holding the bag?"

The answer was a 2002 rule change placing future liability on those responsible for the contamination and not on the developers or future property owners. With those liability concerns addressed, developers moved forward more easily with cleaning up and building on the sites, said Coffin, who has specialized in brownfield development.

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"They were able to pick up brownfields for a song because of lower property values," she said. "They were able to get them at such a discount it allowed them to absorb the cost of cleanup and make a nice profit on the development."

Techniques for cleaning up sites also improved.

John Gallagher, who oversees cleanup for Cherokee Partners, a Raleigh, N.C.-based company that redevelops brownfield sites, said preparing land can be as simple as moving contaminated soil to a landfill. But some sites require more advanced methods, such as placing microbes into the soil to eat the hazardous material. In some cases, chemicals can be injected into the dirt to destroy the contamination, or the soil can be solidified so people can't come in contact with it.

"But the best thing is, if we can get at the contamination, is to remove it, especially when we're talking about housing," Gallagher said.

Even at sites with significant contamination, developers are confidently moving ahead with a variety of projects.

In the Des Moines suburb of Ankeny, for example, housing, businesses and even a school are planned for a site that once housed a former defense department ammunition plant. Before building, developers must remove soil contaminated with lead and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, a byproduct of burning materials like oil, coal, wood or garbage.

At a former industrial site near downtown Des Moines, city planners envision more than 500 housing units on riverfront land that for decades was home to a series of manufacturing plants.

"People hear contamination and they think soil that glows in the dark, but that's not the case," said Matt Anderson, the city's economic development administrator. "In cases like this, you're talking about ground water contamination or lead in the soil, issues that can be addressed fairly easily today."

In Atlanta, a 130-acre development is replacing a former giant steel mill with shops, entertainment venues and homes for 10,000 people.

One reason residents don't seem put off by their home's toxic past, experts acknowledge, is that often they don't know the history.

They seem a gleaming condo in a vibrant area, close to their work and within walking distance of shops. They have little idea what was there 10 or 20 years ago.

"Home buyers didn't know a site was contaminated in the first place," said Coffin, the St. Louis University professor. "It seems to me that the brownfield wasn't even on the radar screens of home buyers. It's not on the radar for a lot of people unless you live next to one."

Mehringer, the Stapleton resident, said residents trust that the site is safe. They wonder when they see workers arrive, covered head-to-toe in cleanup suits, to prepare undeveloped areas, but for most, such issues aren't a frequent concern.

"Other issues are more significant, like when are we going to get a Whole Foods-type market, or when is a park going to open," Mehringer said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. The information contained in the AP news report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press. Active hyperlinks have been inserted by AOL.

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