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Brownfields program sharing its success story with Chinese delegation

Friday, August 26, 2016 - 12:00am

Bruce Nicholson has a great story to share about the state Brownfields program he leads.

The program has led to the successful cleanup and redevelopment of hundreds of sites and bolstered the economies in many North Carolina communities.

Last week, Nicholson shared his program’s story with a group of engineers visiting from China. The engineers are employees of an energy company from Hangzhou who were visiting to learn more about the state’s Brownfields program.

“Prior to the Brownfields program, many developers would conceive of a project, learn about the environmental contamination on a site and (the project) would never get off the ground,” Nicholson says. “It was far too costly to finance a cleanup to unrestricted use standards, and there was great uncertainty about environmental liability.”

Bruce Nicholson, who leads the state Brownfields program, speaks to a delegation of engineers visiting North Carolina from China. Nicholson discussed how the program is helping business people cleanup and redevelop properties that would likely have remained idle for the foreseeable future.

The state Brownfields program allows redevelopment of abandoned sites where environmental contamination has hindered its redevelopment. A prospective developer enters into a Brownfields agreement with the state that allows the developer who did not cause the contamination to clean up a site by removing risks of exposure, which is less costly and equally protective of public health. As such, prospective developers can seek a loan with a defined, instead of open-ended, liability for environmental cleanup.

Brownfields agreements have pumped more than $14 billion in private investment into North Carolina’s economy and helped create thousands of jobs since the program’s creation in 1997, Nicholson said. Formerly contaminated sites have been successfully converted into new apartments, museums and multimillion dollar office complexes. The program boasts nearly 400 successful projects statewide and is on track to exceed 50 agreements this fiscal year – more than any other year in the program’s history.

“I think anytime you’re sharing information about your program, it’s a great thing,” Nicholson says. “In this case, it’s particularly interesting because it’s being shared internationally.”

John Gallagher, a Triangle-based environmental engineer, also spoke to the Chinese delegation. Gallagher advises business people on the use of Brownfields agreements to redevelop properties with environmental issues. He’s worked with similar programs in about 20 states.

“North Carolina’s Brownfields program is among the best in the nation,” Gallagher said. “They provide great incentives to developers hoping to convert unused properties into successful developments. Among other things, North Carolina’s program provides liability protections, reasonable cleanup standards and a large reduction in your future property taxes on the improvements developers make.”     

Gallagher said the Brownfields program is appealing in China because there is significant pressure to redevelop properties due to the lack of available land and the value of many idled manufacturing facilities.

Members of the Chinese delegation were impressed by what they heard of North Carolina’s program. The delegation is spending three months in North Carolina as part of a program hosted by the research institute RTI International and Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. The group is learning about international business development, engineering, finance and business planning.

Marty Wiggins, an environmental education program consultant in DEQ, helped give the delegation a tour of Green Square, the headquarters for the state environmental agency. Members of the delegation were interested in many of the building’s environmentally friendly features.      

After hearing from Nicholson and Gallagher, the delegation toured the Green Square building and three brownfields projects in Raleigh’s warehouse district, including Citrix, a software company that used a Brownfields agreement to cleanup and redevelop an abandoned industrial complex. The engineers hope to apply many of the lessons learned in North Carolina to their jobs in China, says Yourong Fu, a civil engineer with the delegation.

“In China, there are lots of toxic soils that need to be detoxed and put back into productive use for real estate or some other use,” Fu said. “We intend to learn how they use the brownfields program to turn toxic sites into sites that can be utilized for some commercial, viable development.”