Earlier this year, Dianne Crocker, a principal analyst at Environmental Data Resources, a Connecticut-based firm that investigates the environmental risks of vacant properties, moderated a panel discussion on the role of social media in promoting brownfield redevelopment.
“In the past, it was easier to hide a property’s dirty laundry,” she said. Now, there are websites that track the history of brownfields, and even Facebook pages and Twitter posts devoted to contamination cleanup.
Two years ago, Crocker said, the Environmental Protection Agency launched a Facebook group for residents of the blocks surrounding the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, and passed along cleaning updates through Twitter.
In New Jersey, the Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees about 23,000 contaminated properties statewide, operates Site Mart, a database of vacant industrial properties.
Federal Hill, a residential complex in Perth Amboy, was built near a brownfield with help from the database, and received a number of grants to install new street lights and roads, according to the website.
“Data used to be expensive,” Crocker said. “Now, all you need to do is type in an address.”
Thanks, in part, to the rise of readily-available information, Crocker has watched attitudes towards environmental remediation shift.
When she first joined Environmental Data Resources in the late ‘90s, real estate professionals conducted site assessments mainly to avoid legal action under the Superfund Act, which can hold current landlords responsible for past contamination.
“Today, it’s much more about business risk,” said Crocker, a graduate of Goucher College who launched her career at E.H. Pechan & Associates, an environmental consulting firm in Washington, DC. To ensure that investments are sound, developers hope to identify environmental risks before finalizing purchases, she explained, “just like mechanics inspect new cars.”
Crocker and her team, who put together market intelligence reports, customized research, and educational seminars, have gone from working on cases like Kiddie Kollege Day Care, a pre-school in Franklin Township, New Jersey that was built on a mercury-contaminated thermometer factory, to proactively investigating the history of thousands of properties throughout the Five Boroughs.
At Kiddie Kollege, the state forked over $1 million for the site’s cleanup and demolition, and recouped the costs from the facility’s landlord, a local real estate investor. The latter project, Crocker said, “was designed to support public and private stakeholders with brownfield redevelopment initiatives throughout the metro area.”
In New Jersey, she added, her firm has recently begun looking into a handful of sites contaminated with petroleum, supplying more detailed research than that available online. On some Site Mart entries, for instance, details like wetland presence and remediation progress are listed as “unknown.”
In addition to looking into soil and water contamination on individual sites, Crocker has been tracking the impact of the economic downturn on redevelopment initiatives.
In recent months, banks have changed how they operate when it comes to enforcing remediation. “When I started, it was about the size of the loan,” she said. “Banks would do due diligence only on the riskiest properties.”
During the recession, lending institutions began approaching EDR directly after foreclosing on potentially contaminated properties, Crocker explained. The market slump has also changed the way private developers conduct assessments, forcing them to slow down the pace of construction and devote more time to gathering data.
“If there is one silver lining in the recession, people are starting to do more due diligence,” Crocker said. “In 2006 and early 2007, everyone wanted deals done quickly. Doing environmental due diligence was about checking the box and moving on. Now buyers are conducting much more thorough due diligence.”