Back in the days before COVID-19, when schools were open full time and most people who wanted work were able to find it, one of the top economic challenges faced by the state of Connecticut came straight from the economy of the past. Because of the state’s rich industrial heritage, many once-vital properties have been burdened with environmental contamination that has the effect of preventing new businesses from operating in those locations because of health concerns.
This problem hasn’t gone away, of course, but may have understandably taken on a lower priority amid a global pandemic and accompanying recession. But even if those problems were solved tomorrow, the issue of contaminated industrial properties standing in the way of economic growth would continue.
So it’s good to see state officials maintaining a focus on the problem in the midst of the other calamities we’re facing. Still, they need to be careful any proposed solution aimed at speeding economic development doesn’t have unintended consequences.
At issue is the Connecticut law called the Transfer Act, which dates to 1985 and was intended to force the cleanup of polluted properties at the time they went up for sale, when money to do so is presumably available. Critics say the law has instead prevented sales of properties around the state, leaving them as unproductive brownfields.
Advocates want a system more in line with the rest of the country, where property owners would be required to report accidental releases of toxins, but not be subject to randomized testing in all parts of the property. That could open the door to owners neglecting to report previous spills, but members of a working group crafting legislation to update the Transfer Act say there are enough safeguards to ensure that properties are clean.
Environmental advocates have also said the law should be updated, but are understandably worried that spills could go unreported. They are asking for a tougher audit system that would ensure everything is above board.
A revised Transfer Act is an important step, and a move the Legislature should make, though it would take some time before new regulations would go into effect. But no one should be under the impression that it would be enough to clear the sizable backlog of contaminated properties Connecticut faces in what could be economically viable markets. For that to happen, more help would be needed.
Other states that match Connecticut’s proposed new standards have brownfields problems of their own, for a simple reason — if developers don’t see an economic payoff in a property, they aren’t going to invest in its rehabilitation. Public spending on brownfields, either from the state or federal government, helps close the gap between what it would take to clean up a plot and what a developer is willing to spend. Either way, there is going to be a reluctance to take on contaminated properties unless they’re in a prime location.
Still, if updating the Transfer Act is a way toward bringing some abandoned properties back into productive use, the state needs to make it happen. But more will be needed to take on a problem of this size.