Remediating brownfields can involve any combination of excavation, waste disposal at landfills, incineration of waste, and capping, in addition to institutional controls (i.e., restrictive declarations, environmental easements). Recent policy guidance from the Department of Environmental Conservation (“DEC”) and a bill proposed by the New York City Council, however, indicate a preference for utilizing more sustainable remediation methods in the area of contaminated site cleanups. Remediating brownfields using sustainable methods can help lower the cost of the cleanup and can also be funded through grants made available by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (“ARRA”) and other brownfield cleanup grant programs.

DEC regulations set forth certain criteria to determine the appropriate remedy for a contaminated site under New York State’s environmental remediation programs (i.e., the Inactive Hazardous Waste Disposal Site Remedial Program, the Brownfield Cleanup Program, and the Environmental Restoration Program). While not specifically listed among the criteria, DEC has issued a program policy statement that requires all remedial and governmental parties to consider sustainability/green remediation concepts when assembling and evaluating remedial alternatives.

DEC’s program policy on green remediation, DER-31, defines green remediation as “the practice of considering all environmental effects of remedy implementation and incorporating options to minimize the environmental footprint of cleanup actions.” Pursuant to DER-31, DEC requires qualitative and possibly quantitative green metrics to be considered when determining the appropriate remedial alternative. At a minimum, a qualitative assessment of the total impacts related to the remedial alternatives being considered (e.g., direct and indirect sources of greenhouse gases (“GHGs”) and relative scale of the GHGs, material reused on site or disposed, travel required to maintain the remedy) must be discussed and relative impacts of the remedies must be compared. If the remedies offer equivalent public health and on/near site environmental protection, DEC requires the production of “relevant and readily calculable metrics” related to direct and indirect impacts for each alternative (e.g., energy or emissions required to construct and operate the remedy, fuel use, or tons of waste disposal avoided). DEC does not require a life-cycle analysis to determine upstream impacts (i.e., impacts related to emissions caused prior to purchasing a remedial product), but DEC can request upstream emissions quantification if needed to support remedial decisions.

According to DEC, evolving cleanup technologies combined with ARRA and other grant incentives “offer significant potential for increasing the net benefit of cleanup, cost savings, and the universe of long-term property reuse options without compromising cleanup goals.”

While the State acknowledges the benefits of sustainable remediation, sustainability will not replace the State’s priority of implementing remedies that are protective of public health and the environment. Sustainability is to be considered as part of the evaluation of an appropriate remedy, and the concept of green remediation will not be used to implement a lesser remedy when a more comprehensive remedy is appropriate and feasible.

The New York City Council has introduced a bill that favors the use of sustainable remediation measures over conventional site remediation measures. The bill requires the remediation of any brownfield or unlisted superfund site before the Department of Buildings can approve any construction documents for the development of such site. The bill lists the following preferred response measures:

Bioremediation (“the use of microorganisms to degrade organic contaminants in soil, sludge, and solids either excavated or in situ”); Green remediation (“the use of biological processes to remove pollutants from the environment or to render them harmless, including passive energy systems, phytoremediation, and any other proven sustainable nontraditional remediation technologies as determined by the commissioner by rule”); Bioventing (“a remediation technology that uses microorganisms enhanced by air to biodegrade organic constituents absorbed on soils in the unsaturated zone”); and Phytoremediation (the “use of plants to remove pollutants from the environment or render them harmless”).

The bill addresses the City Council’s concern that conventional site remediation measures can result in the emission of significant quantities of greenhouse gases, utilize extensive natural resources, or fail to protect public health or the environment to the same degree as sustainable remediation.

Green remediation practices are being utilized in other parts of the country as well. For example, at a former automobile manufacturing plant in South Bend, Indiana, the cleanup included deconstructing (as opposed to demolishing) the site’s 665,000 square foot building for reuse. An estimated 99 percent of the building material was recovered and either reused on-site, donated locally, or converted to profitable reuses, generating $1.4 million that went toward the property’s assessment, cleanup and redevelopment and keeping building material out of the landfill. As another example, the City of West Sacramento in California has received more than $154,000 in ARRA grant money to remediate an abandoned industrial site by using natural bacteria.