I Thought Redeveloping Brownfields Was a Good Idea: Apparently the Boston Globe Hasn’t Gotten the Message

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In an article earlier this week, the Boston Globe reported on concerns that the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection is planning to weaken cleanup standards for hazardous waste sites in Massachusetts, seemingly in response to pressure from developers.  The article is so wrong and the concerns are so misplaced that some response is necessary.

First, we expect MassDEP to regulate in the face of uncertainty.  That means that MassDEP must set cleanup standards without perfect knowledge.  As a result, most people – and certainly the environmentalists complaining about the regulatory changes – would expect MassDEP to err on the side of conservatism, making the cleanup standards more stringent than may be necessary.

At the same time, science evolves and we’d expect MassDEP to alter cleanup standards periodically in response to changed science.  Moreover, if MassDEP originally erred on the side of being overly conservative, one would expect that, as science improves, many standards could be relaxed – and that that would be a good thing.

What’s most troubling about the article and the NGO position here is the idea that environmental protection is still a black hat / white hat arena and that if something is good for economic development, then it must be bad for the environment.  I thought we’d gotten past that in Massachusetts.  Indeed, brownfields redevelopment is the prototypical example given of environmental protection being used to advance economic goals.  That’s why it’s both stunning and deeply depressing to see lines such as this in the article:

Critics worry the rules will spur developers to build on contaminated land, known as brownfields.

Better instead that we should plow under the greenfields and leave the brownfields vacant and without any cleanup, I suppose.  I thought we already tried that strategy and concluded it didn’t work.

Silly me.