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Helmke on Brownfields/Superfund Reform: "It Is Crucial You Act This Year"

By Kevin McCarty

Testifying before a House Subcommittee on pending brownfields bills, Conference Past President and Fort Wayne Mayor Paul Helmke told the panel members that the mayors believe "it is crucial that you act, that you act in a bipartisan way, and that you act this year to help change the way we use land in America."

At the August 4 hearing of the House Commerce Subcommittee on Finance and Hazardous Materials, Helmke said, "We think the answer lies in getting a bipartisan agreement and moving this through the Congress."

Helmke joined with other public interests groups and Administration officials to present testimony on the brownfields elements of three pending House bills (H.R. 1300, H.R. 1750 and H.R. 2580), the first hearings on these matters by the House Commerce Committee in the 106th Congress.

As the Subcommittee met, leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee elsewhere in the building were announcing their bipartisan legislative agreement on brownfields and Superfund reform, called "Recylcing America's Land Act" (H.R. 1300).

Helmke called attention to the need for bipartisanship action and the Shuster panel, which shares jurisdiction on these issues with the Commerce Commerce, stating, "This effort will be advanced later today when the bipartisan leadership of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee announce their agreement. Tomorrow, that Committee will act on a very broad, consensus-based bipartisan agreement, H.R. 1300, the "Recycle America's Land Act."

Praising the Subcommittee Chair, Rep. Mike Oxley (OH), and his commitment to recycling brownfields and preserving farmland and open space, Helmke said, "We share a common view, as our older industrial communities struggle to recycle these sites. And, we know the value and importance of the farmland that is too often needlessly placed at risk."

Acknowledging the progress cities and others are making with brownfields and the support from Congress, EPA Administrator Carol Browner and members of the Administration, he said, "But as a nation, we are not making progress at a rate that is quick enough or substantial enough. The problem of brownfields lying fallow, coupled with and our nation's appetite for open space, is of epidemic proportions."

He praised Rep. Jim Greenwood (PA), Rep. Edolphus Towns (NY) and others for their legislative proposals to address brownfields.

Helmke also explained the many reasons why mayors believe the "time has come" to take legislative action to help cities recycle brownfields. "The time has come to stop punishing innocent parties under Superfund to undo the bias in favor of open space over recycling brownfields to help us make welfare reform really work by recycling these properties and creating jobs in close-by neighborhoods and business districts to change policies that drive businesses to look first for greenfields, not brownfields." Helmke said.

Citing data from the Conference's Second Annual Brownfields Survey provides compelling rationale, Helmke said, "180 cities reported more than 19,000 brownfields sites represent more than 178,000 acres. This is a land area that is larger than the cities of Seattle, San Francisco and Atlanta combined."

He also talked about the mayors' experience with bankers and lenders to increase investment in brownfields redevelopment.

"They (bankers) are not willing to move aggressively on brownfields until there are legislative reforms to Superfund. They have told us that they are prepared to substantially increase capital flows to brownfield as soon as Congress enacts legislation that shields innocent parties from Superfund's liability," Helmke said.

Concluding his testimony with a discussion of the important legislative elements on brownfields, he cited liability reforms, funding for assessments and cleanups and "finality" provisions that "must be clear and decisive so that the private investors, local officials and others understand that the state can act."

Helmke also reminded the Members of the Subcommittee that there are other concerns in the Superfund reform debate beyond brownfields issues, such as liability reforms to help cities where municipal wastes have been co-disposed with hazardous wastes at Superfund sites.

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