Industry, government, and MSU Extension collaborate on improving brownfield regulation

Michigan’s cities contain thousands of contaminated properties awaiting clean-up and redevelopment. Multiple factors have stalled numerous clean-ups and left redevelopment in limbo.

Michigan’s economic crisis has forced change upon both government and industry. Some of Michigan’s cities hit hardest by the recession contain thousands of brownfields, abandoned properties that can’t be re-sold or redeveloped until contaminants that threaten human health are brought down to acceptable levels. Former gas stations with leaking underground storage tanks, old dry-cleaning buildings, and capped landfills are common brownfields. The state’s environmental regulator, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), works to ensure that public and environmental health is safeguarded before a site is re-used.

Brownfield redevelopment is a historically contentious game of “shirts versus skins,” according to DEQ Director Dan Wyant. Put another way, industry and business interests vs. the regulators. Wyant shares Governor Rick Snyder’s belief that this game cannot continue if Michigan’s urban centers are to be restored.

At Snyder’s urging, the DEQ partnered with MSU Extension to convene a series of work sessions with brownfield redevelopment and remediation stakeholders. These stakeholders represented a range of interests—DEQ regulators, environmental consultants and attorneys, manufacturing industries, independent consultants and local governments. This Collaborative Stakeholders Initiative (CSI) was designed to:

  1. To generate recommendations that would reinvent Michigan’s brownfield redevelopment.
  2. To foster an improved climate of trust, cultural understanding and cooperation among stakeholders and state agency staff.

Three MSU Extension facilitators served on the CSI steering committee: Claire Layman, Georgia Peterson and Julie Pioch. The committee designed small-group sessions around the two CSI goals and incorporated principles of adult learning, appreciate inquiry and deliberative dialogue.

Eighty participants (dubbed “leaders”) met three times over a period of six weeks between February 3 and March 15. The opening and closing sessions were a few hours long, while the middle session, held at Kellogg Biological Station, spanned three days. The process was rapid by design, recognizing the urgency of the issue and reflecting one of Snyder’s governing principles: “relentless, positive action.” It was stressed throughout that this Initiative was meant to spark change and create ongoing collaboration among leaders.

Leaders were placed in one of seven Issue Groups that focused on a different point of contention within the Brownfield Redevelopment and Remediation programs. Each issue group was led by two MSU Extension facilitators who have been trained to assist groups in reaching their goals. Stakeholders quickly recognized that everyone shared a common goal of a living in a state that contained both vibrant economies and plentiful, healthy ecosystems.

The final report, as well as a synthesis of the recommendations, was presented to Wyant, CSI leaders and other stakeholders on March 15. The CSI generated about 90 recommendations for improving the state’s cleanup and redevelopment program, most of them backed with unanimous consensus of issue group members.

At the national level, a just-published guide for local government leaders provides strategies and tools for redeveloping leaking underground storage tank sites. “From Vacancy to Vibrancy” is a publication of the Smart Growth America organization.

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