The Hidden Hurdle to Industrial Redevelopment

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A few years ago, the site of an abandoned dry cleaner or manufacturer was pretty much left for dead, as far as further economic development was concerned. Downtowns and neighborhoods on the fringe of city and town centers are dotted with such locations. These areas were left in the wake as economic developers moved farther out into the suburbs -- onto seemingly cleaner real estate -- leaving "rings" of abandoned property close to downtown.

Ever wonder why so many old industrial locations lie fallow, attracting debris and trouble, but not productive re-use? Simple economics dictate a path of least resistance, fair or not. It’s easier to assume that these old properties are contaminated and its buildings are environmentally unsafe for occupation, than it is to spend time, effort and money to find out if harmful levels of contaminants actually exist. Even though these properties can often times be purchased for a deep discount due to the stigma they carry, most developers would rather not mess with them. 

It is true that many old buildings, such as past drycleaners, are situated over the type of subsurface contamination that can cause toxic vapor to rise up into overlying buildings (this is called vapor intrusion). But that doesn’t necessarily mean that these buildings can’t be productively occupied while the cleanup is planned and implemented. In recent years, state, municipal and neighborhood economic redevelopment commissions and corporations have been reversing the trend of ignoring these old sites. In fact, many of the properties upon which these empty buildings sit may be already in early stages of the environmental cleanup process. However, environmental investigation and cleanup can take many years, leaving the buildings unoccupied and subject to further dilapidation. 

There is good news; technology is improving for discovering if these old dry cleaning and manufacturing buildings are safe for immediate reuse. Advances in analytical instrumentation allow strategically-minded developers and the environmental engineering industry to steadily bring these old properties back to life. One key tool was initially developed for the U.S. military.  It is a portable chemical identification system called the "HAPSITE microtrap concentrator." Commercial environmental engineering companies are now using it to locate, identify, and quantify old chemicals -- even trace amounts down to one part per trillion. That’s trillion with a "T." That’s tiny! (A trillion is one million one millions. It would take over 31,000 years for one trillion seconds to tick off the clock!)

The HAPSITE is a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer. It’s about the size of a carry-on suitcase and is the only one truly portable for easy application on location to find, identify and determine the quantity of toxic industrial chemicals that may be present in the building’s air. The HAPSITE contains a small bed of absorbent material to trap volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from air samples over a period of 30 to 60 seconds. Airflow through the trap is then reversed, the air is heated and analyzed on the HAPSITE’s integral mass spectrometer. The result is unprecedented sensitivity for on-scene laboratory reporting, which allows for a very quick answer to the question of whether a building may be safely occupied for commercial or residential purposes. Or, if it  is uninhabitable, the location and degree of contaminants that must be removed.

Our company is among the leaders in using the HAPSITE as part of an intensive vapor intrusion assessment process. The HAPSITE alerts us instantly precisely where vapors may be entering the indoor air. Cracks in floors and walls, floor drains, pipe chases, interior wall spaces and attics are among the most common culprits.  With the use of this technology, operated by our in-house certified HAPSITE analyst, we are among those able to provide real-time data and get down to fine detail so that we can effectively identify indoor air contaminants and then mitigate them. For example, we used the HAPSITE at a strip mall in Brownsburg to identify the precise location where vapors from subsurface contamination entered an unleased tenant space. Successfully analyzing the vapors and their source allowed for the space to be leased safely while remediation activities are ongoing.

This new development in finding and getting rid of old pollutants is a boon to commercial property owners, developers and urban officials who want to convert dangerous eyesores to safe, productive places for city neighborhood revitalization while environmental cleanup progresses beneath. Perhaps the greatest benefit is to people who live and work near former industrial locations, as they are able to gain pride in their recovering neighborhood and keep their eyes forward toward continued economic recovery.

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