By Steve Dwyer
Railfield redevelopment opportunities have been expanding more each decade, due mainly to the significant reduction of miles maintained by the consolidated U.S. rail system, which has decreased by at least 50%. In its wake is an extensive legacy of underutilized, contaminated, and sometimes abandoned rail properties.
In the NYC metropolitan area, a railfield redevelopment is potentially in the works if it gets the green light from state regulators.
With traces of mercury remaining in soil at the Inwood LIRR station (Nassau County)—contaminants borne by rectifiers used to power the rail line station until 1979—the New York Department of Environmental Conservation has been reviewing an application from a realty company, Coland Realty, that would incorporate a section of the Far Rockaway Long Island Railroad line, which incorporates the Inwood station, into the state’s Brownfield Cleanup Program, according to a recent report in the Long Island Herald.
The New York State Department of Conservation is investigating the site in relation to the Coland application submitted Oct. 10. The public comment period ended Nov. 9 and now the goal of the Brownfield Cleanup Program is to encourage private-sector cleanups and promote redevelopment through tax incentives.
According to the DEC, the primary contaminant is mercury, which originated from the rectifiers that powered the Inwood station. “This type of contamination is something that is common at various LIRR owned properties,” said a DEC spokesman.
If the stakeholders involved in this effort want to look for guidance on proceeding the right way, there are several resources to tap. For starters, EPA offers a site profile guide, entitled “Technical Approaches to Characterizing and Cleaning up Brownfields Sites: Railroad Yards,” to assist stakeholders in characterizing rail properties.
And success stories are out there as well. In Cambridge and Somerville, Mass., for instance, a former rail freight yard owned by Guilford Transportation Industries was transformed into a 45-acre mixed-use development. Guilford initiated the development after declining freight traffic in Boston made the property redundant. The project included commercial and residential development with some of the property devoted to greenspace and a regional bicycle trail. Ultimately, the initiative integrated an underused industrial property to the communities around it.
Determining if the site is eligible for the NYS cleanup program is the first step towards cleaning up the mercury. “If the application is deemed eligible, the DEC and the applicant will enter into a Brownfield Cleanup Agreement, which will provide for the investigation and cleanup of the site,” a DEC spokeswoman said. “Once the agreement is executed, the applicant will submit a work plan to investigate and clean up the site (as part of a Remedial Investigation Work Plan). The work plan will fully delineate the nature and extent of contamination at the site. Prior to the start of work at the site.”
The stigma of potential redevelopments along railroad lines has typically been a bone of contention with local residents. One local resident expressed these concerns about the Inwood LIRR station situation by stating that “it’s pretty scary knowing it’s right here by the train tracks. I hope they take care of it quickly, I know being around mercury isn’t good for you.”
The DEC and the state’s Department of Health was in the process of implementing measures to protect and minimize the effect the work has had—and will have—on local businesses, residents and commuters, including monitoring the air for dust vapors and odors.
The advice to those involved would be to proceed prudently. Residual contamination including herbicides, petroleum products and byproducts, metals and creosote, is often present on these properties.
Looking at the historical protocols, a majority of rail companies perform an environmental review on every property transaction as an evaluation process to determine if there are significant contamination concerns.
Similar to other brownfields redevelopment projects, liability concerns about environmental contamination on the property are a common roadblock for the rail companies in addressing properties. Rail companies often recommend that local governments work with them and state environmental agencies on liability issues. Often, if contamination is found during the investigation process of the project, liability rests with the rail company, which creates a major disincentive for the rail companies to proceed.
Rail companies have an interest in working with municipalities during the planning process of redevelopment of rail properties that have become obsolete, allowing the companies to provide early input into reuse options as they have valuable knowledge about potential contamination concerns. Rail companies recommend that local governments spend significant time exploring whether the end use is appropriate based on the cleanup level prior to planning redevelopment.