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Superfund stigma often a hindrance for development

Superfund sites often face problems with redevelopment.
By David Wolfgang and Leighann C. Manwarren, Staff Writers Published: October 10, 2010

photo - A
A "For Sale" sign sits by the fence along side "Ristricted Area" signs at the Superfund site on NW 10th street in Oklahoma City, Okla on Tuesday June 20, 2010. Photo by Mitchell Alcala, The Oklahoman ORG XMIT: KOD
On NE 10 just east of Interstate 35, a small sign outside a former junkyard warned visitors they are not wanted.

“Restricted area,” the sign read. “Hazardous waste site entry not permitted.”

Past the chain link fence in the waist-high weeds, there was another sign. It read: “For sale.”

Efforts nationwide to redevelop tracts of land with past environmental problems like this one have had mixed results, and Oklahoma City is no different.

The Skirvin Hilton Hotel, the Dell Inc. campus and many locations in Bricktown were once like the junkyard: Abandoned and environmentally scarred. The Skirvin Hotel in Oklahoma City was filled with asbestos; Dell's campus operates on top of a closed city landfill; and much of Bricktown stands on top of old oil fields.

Those locations were aided by the Environmental Protection Agency's Brownfield program, which provides federal money to turn places like oil fields, landfills and asbestos-laden buildings into safe places to live and work.

But such redevelopment success isn't always the case for locations that make it into another high-profile EPA sponsored program, Superfund. Redeveloping those lands is often much more difficult, despite the millions of dollars spent cleaning up those sites.

“There is a stigma with them, but some are cleaner than other property you might buy,” said Chris Varga, a redevelopment specialist with the Oklahoma City Planning Department.

Image, red tape problems

Part of the problem is overcoming the Superfund perception, Varga said.

Superfund sites often are larger and sometimes more hazardous to people's health than other environmental problem areas, heightening apprehension about redevelopment.

Developing such sites can be frustrating because of expensive cleanup costs and the extra time needed, Varga said.

Developers getting past those hurdles face federal and state restrictions on what can be built on the property, how long people can be exposed to the site and for what purposes the land can be used.

Possibilities slim

Except for the state Environmental Quality Department's periodic checkups, the former landfill and junkyard on NE 10 has been left untouched for years.

Amy Brittain, an agency environmental programs manager, said building on the site is possible but environmental and financial barriers would make it difficult.

“I don't see a lot of possibility for redevelopment soon,” Varga said.

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