Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were manufactured until the 1970s and were used in a wide variety of products such as electrical equipment, light ballasts, paints and caulks, PVC, pesticides, cutting oils, hydraulic fluids, adhesives, waterproofing compounds, and countless other products. Their widespread use is the result of their unique properties such as chemical stability, low flammability, and insulating qualities among others. But, these same properties are also the reason why PCBs remain as persistent organic pollutants in the environment. While the jury is still out, some researchers even suspect that PCBs may have a slow volatility component that represents a significant human exposure risk. Because of the toxicity and associated costs and liability risks, PCB-contaminated sites are often seen as undevelopable. At the very least, PCBs create a significant roadblock to the re-development of countless industrial and commercial sites across the country.
PCBs as a Roadblock to Development
In many states, PCBs are regulated at concentrations above 1 part per million (ppm). On a Federal level, once PCBs are found in soil above 50 ppm in certain instances, a property becomes subject to the requirements of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)(40 CFR Part 761). TSCA and many state regulations contain some very onerous investigation and remediation requirements. As a result, compliance with the regulations sets off a cascade of complexities that can stand in the way of re-development if not handled properly. These include:
- The cost to remove and/or manage PCBs in place
- The risk of their human and/or ecological toxicity.
- The long term liability for a property owner.
- The risk of PCBs to building occupants.
- The time required to navigate through state and federal regulations and the risk of construction and redevelopment delays.
How to Move Past the Roadblock
Managed properly, PCBs do not need to be an obstruction, and many solutions to move forward with a development project lie within reach. Some of the innovative redevelopment strategies that can be used to greatly reduce remediation and redevelopment costs include:
- Developing a cohesive and well thought out plan to remediate high levels of PCBs and manage lower levels in place.
- Using the plan to secure risk-based remediation plan approval from the EPA under the risk-based approval process contained in 40 CFR Part 761.61(c).The use of vapor barriers beneath new buildings to ensure that PCB volatilization, should volatility emerge as a significant exposure pathway, will not pose a threat to building occupants.
- Using innovative capping strategies to manage PCBs in place, such as the use of low permeability pavement when PCBs can be rendered safe in a “low-occupancy” setting.
- The use of contractual agreements to control and assign long term liability among parties including property owners, responsible parties, and tenants.
- The reuse of PCB contaminated soils beneath roads and buildings.
- The reuse of PCB bulk-product and remediation wastes from impacted building materials as an engineered fill (i.e. impacted masonry processed to meet geotechnical specifications).
Using these strategies, PCBs don’t have to be an obstacle to redevelopment. With creative management, “undevelopable” PCB sites can become profitable re-development opportunities. However, to make re-development a reality, a clear and methodical plan, creativity, regulator-approval, and legal agreements are the pre-requisites. Be sure to tune into our upcoming late-summer webinar on adaptive reuse projects that will address a number of important issues (further details on registration will be posted here), and check out my blog on when you should test for PCBs here.