Buffalo Case Study

    The Buffalo case study addresses how communities have responded to the challenges that brownfields present. I believe that the Buffalo case study is important because it forces students to consider how "pro-environment" laws and policies can cause unintentional harm to the environment.

    Similarly, laws and policies that seem less environmentalist" sometimes can promote environmental justice.

    The EPA defines a brownfield as "an abandoned, idled, or under-used industrial or commercial facility where development is complicated by real or perceived contamination." Randi Schillinger & Laurie S. Jacobovitz, The Brownfield Problem: Federal and State Clean-Up-Efforts--Part I, Metropolitan Corporate Counsel, July 1998, at 13.

    While this case study focuses on Buffalo, the brownfield problem exists throughout the country (though cities in relative decline such as Buffalo tend to be the most plagued).

    The brownfield problem begins because businesses looking for new lots have no incentive to buy land that may be moderately polluted if they know that "clean" lands (or "greenfields") are available. Developing greenfields, rather than re-developing brownfields, creates two effects many believe are negative. First, building exclusively on greenfields expands urban/suburban sprawl into more pristine rural, agricultural, and natural environments, changing the country's landscape. Second, building on greenfield land keeps money out of inner-cities and contributes to urban economic decay. Thus, the brownfields in the city remain undredeveloped and continue to be both environmental hazards and aesthetic eyesores.

    Most believe that government should encourage the use of brownfields (and use government funds to help clean them up, if necessary) to keep cities prosperous and relatively clean while saving those rural communities presently untouched by commercial and industrial sprawl. Current CERCLA laws, however, make this goal an unlikely outcome. CERCLA imposes "heavy penalties on all parties connected with contaminated lands, but offers[s] no rewards to the few within this group who contribute to the cleanup of these blighted areas.' Wendy E. Wagner, Learning From Brownfields, 13 J. Nat. Resources & Envtl. L. 217, 221 (1997-98). Liability under CERCLA is strict, joint, and several; any owner of the land (even one responsible for creating no pollution) can be held completely liable for cleaning the site up. Id. at 225.

    CERCLA, therefore, discourages businesses from opening shop on a brownfield because they do not want to assume liability for cleaning up a mess they didn't make. While Congress passed CERCLA specifically to help the environment, the statute resulted in the continued abandonment of brownfields and the promotion of sprawl.

    In addition to CERCLA, businesses planning to build in the Buffalo area are discouraged further because New York's environmental laws hold property owners responsible for pollution on their lands, whether they caused that pollution or not. Chet Bridger, Buffalo's Brownfields Dilemma; State Law Makes It Very Difficult to Redevelop Polluted Land. Yet, if Such "Brownfield" Appache Isn't Opened UT), the City will Continue to Decline, while Rural Farmland is Snatched up for Industrial Development, Leading to Further Sprawl, Buffalo News, May 23, 1999, at 5B.

    Despite national and statewide disincentives to revitalize brownfields, Buffalo (with prodding from environmental organizations) has decided to clean up and use its brownfields, hoping to spur economic growth and prevent sprawl. For instance, Buffalo has witnessed many specific examples of brownfield development. "Buffalo economic development officials . . . are involved in two of the state's largest brownfield cleanup projects." Id. Furthermore, with the help of a $200,000 grant from the EPA and the agency's assurance that no federal action would be taken, resident Nelson Ranch is turning a contaminated brownfield site formerly used by a steel company into a hydroponic tomato farm. Carol M. Browner, Brownfields Are Becoming Places of Opportunity, 13 J. Nat. Resources & Envtl. L. i, ii (1997-98). Moreover, the South Buffalo Redevelopment project is currently cleaning up (and hoping to attract a buyer for) a contaminated site once owned by Republic Steel. Brian Meyer, Ex-Republic Steel Site Showcased at Large Trade Fair in Germany, Buffalo News, May 5, 1999, at 1C.

    Yet, environmentalists worry that businesses are receiving too much slack and pro-brownfield use policies would harm Buffalo's residents more than it would help them in the long run if the sites aren't fully cleaned. Chet Bridger, Buffalo's Brownfields Dilemma; State Law Makes It Very Difficult to Redevelop Polluted Land. Yet, if Such "Brownfield" Acreage Isn't Opened up, the City will Continue to Decline, while Rural Farmland is Snatched up for Industrial Development, Leading to Further Sprawl, Buffalo News, May 23, 1999, at 5B. While no one believes that vacant, moderately-polluted lots are beneficial, many believe that governments should make that the lots are properly cleaned and that businesses interested in buying the land should bear the brunt of the clean-up cost. (While I sympathize with the environmentalists' position, if the law takes away all incentives for businesses to develop its brownfields, the inner-city will remain stagnant, while the countryside and rural communities are spoiled.)

    Most of the best sources for this study are the enclosed newspaper articles which discuss specific events in Buffalo and how the city is encouraging redevelopment in its brownfield areas. The Bridger article is the best newspaper article on the topic because of its depth and detail.

    Furthermore, the Berger work is a thorough, scholarly account of Buffalo's problem. The article also discusses a problems across the country regarding brownfield redevelopment.  Robert S. Berger, et al., Recycling Industrial Sites in Erie County: Meeting the Challenge of Brownfield Redevelopment, 3 Buff. Envtl. L.J. 69 (1995). The article focuses largely on the policies that Buffalo (or any other similarly-situated area) may use to stimulate redevelopment. The Wagner article doesn't address Buffalo specifically, although it discusses how CERCLA encouraged sprawl and discouraged redevelopment of brownfields and the revitalization of inner-cities.