Redevelop brownfields safely — new state rules will help

Given its long industrial history and the intense demand for suitable locations for new homes and businesses, Massachusetts needs well-tuned policies that promote the safe redevelopment of polluted properties — and those policies should evolve as science advances. The Patrick administration’s new standards for contaminated construction sites are a thoughtful refinement of the Commonwealth’s tough existing rules, and insinuations that the state Department of Environmental Protection is gutting vital public-health safeguards are overblown.

The department has announced rules that, starting this spring, will raise the allowable levels of some pollutants at certain levels deep in the soil — while being even more stringent on pollutant levels under other circumstances.

Consider the rules for lead: For soil near the surface on residential property, the state is reducing the maximum allowable amount from 300 parts per million to 200. That would create the nation’s third-toughest standard, behind only Wisconsin and California, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. Most states settle for the federal level of 400 parts per million. Below 15 feet, though, the state is doubling the amount of allowable lead — from 300 parts per million to 600. That would still be the third-toughest standard for industrial soils, a level that state officials believe will still be safe for construction workers, even before donning protective gear.


Changes in the rules can have a significant effect on the economics of proposed redevelopments; properties that are polluted beyond what state standards allow must be cleaned up — often by removing and replacing the polluted soil. The state’s new standards will at the very least simplify the process of developing hundreds of so-called brownfields sites across the state, and could bring new life to the old downtowns of once-industrial Gateway Cities.

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Nonetheless, some environmental groups insist that the Patrick administration is succumbing to pressure from business groups to sacrifice safety in the name of speeding up development permitting . But just because a regulation is on the books doesn’t mean that it should never be re-evaluated. In some cases, the benefits of redeveloping a polluted site may be worth accepting a theoretically larger risk from leaving pollutants deep in the soil.

In environmental regulation, as in other matters, there are tradeoffs about which fair-minded people will disagree. But the rigor and thoughtfulness with which the Department of Environmental Protection has approached this process merits giving the new regulations a try.