Glossary of Brownfields Terms

To use this glossary, either use the scroll bar to the right or click on an underlined (hyperlinked) letter to jump directly to the term of your choice.


"As is" Sale: The transfer of a property to a buyer with no promises, assurances, or representations by the property owner about the conditions of the property.

Abandonment: A halt to the use of a property by the owner without the intention of either transferring the rights to the property or resuming use.

Boilerplate: Standard language that businesses routinely include in contracts. The other party to the agreement can sometimes negotiate to change or remove such provisions.

Brownfield: An industrial or commercial property that remains abandoned or underutilized in part because of environmental contamination or the fear of such contamination. (Government definitions of the term may vary depending on the program.)

Certificate of Completion: A written verification from a state voluntary cleanup or brownfield program that a site has been cleaned up in a manner satisfactory to the state. In some states, a certificate provides liability protection but in most states liability relief must be obtained through another mechanism such as a covenant not to sue.

Cleanup Approval Letter: A written verification from a state voluntary cleanup or brownfield program that a site has been cleaned up in a manner satisfactory to the state.

Comfort Letter: A letter issued through a state voluntary cleanup program, that typically states that a site complies with the program's requirements, is clean enough for the intended use, and that no future enforcement action is expected unless conditions or uses of the site change. The letter typically does not provide legally enforceable rights such as relief from liability.

Community Development Block Grant (CDBG): A lump-sum grant to a state or local government from the Department of Housing and Urban Development that may be used for development activities including, in some cases, brownfield revitalization.

Community Development Corporations (CDCs): Local non-profit organizations created to promote urban redevelopment.

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund): A federal statute that governs the investigation and cleanup of sites contaminated with hazardous substances. The law establishes a trust fund that can be used by the government to clean up sites on the National Priorities List.

Condemnation: A legal process that allows a government entity to acquire title to property for a public purpose, which, in the case of brownfields, can include removing an unused or potentially contaminated site. Once the property has been condemned, the government entity can destroy any buildings and offer the site for private redevelopment.

Contractor Certification: A process for assuring that contractors meet state standards and have state approval for performing specific tasks.

Contractor-Certified Cleanups: Cleanups where the state allows private contractors to make cleanup decisions on behalf of the state, including no-further-action (NFA) letters. Only a small number of states use certified contractors.

Contribution Action: A legal proceeding brought by a party that has incurred cleanup costs against other liable parties for their share of the costs incurred.

Corrective Action: The cleanup process used to address contamination at treatment, storage, and disposal facilities regulated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

Covenant Not to Sue: A written promise by a state government that it will not take legal action or require additional cleanup by a party that satisfactorily cleans up a property under a state brownfield or voluntary cleanup program.

Deed Restriction: A limitation on the use of a property that is recorded on the deed to the property. The limitations on use are legally enforceable against the owner of the property, but who may enforce the limitation depends on state law.

Due Diligence: Evaluation of the environmental condition of a parcel of land, often as part of a real estate transaction. This is required in order for a purchaser to qualify for federal liability protection as an innocent purchaser. See also Environmental Assessment.

Easement: A right to use or limit the use of someone else's property.

Engineering Controls: Physical mechanisms for preventing exposure to contamination. Examples include: fences, pavement, and clay caps placed on contaminated soil.

Environmental Assessment: A site evaluation or investigation conducted for purposes of determining the extent, if any, of contamination on a property. An assessment can be informal or formal, and can consist of several stages. For example, a Phase I assessment, or basic study of possible contamination at a site, is limited to collecting information about past and present site use and inspecting present conditions. A Phase II assessment can follow up a Phase I assessment with sampling and analysis of suspected contaminated areas of a site. A Phase III assessment can either follow up a Phase II assessment by gathering information on the exact extent of the contamination or by preparing plans and alternatives for site cleanup.

Environmental Insurance: Used to eliminate or reduce the financial risk of a brownfields transaction. In exchange for payment, an insurance company agrees to accept the risk of the owner being held liable under state or federal laws for cleanup costs or damages above a specified amount.

Exaction: A local government may use an exaction to require concessions from developers, such as the construction of sidewalks on land that will be developed. The exaction must further a legitimate public interest.

Foreclosure: A legal action taken by a lender to take the collateral (e.g. a property) that secures the loan and to extinguish the rights of the borrower in the collateral.

Greenfield: A property that has not been previously developed.

Hard Costs: A term used in development projects for the amount that includes total land costs, site clearance, grading and construction costs, and landscaping.

Hot Spots: Specific areas where the level of contamination is very high.

Indemnification: An agreement that provides for one party to bear the costs, either directly or by reimbursement, for damages or losses incurred by a second party.

Infill Development: Development on vacant or underused sites in a developed area.

Infrastructure: The roads, utility lines, and other public amenities that support property use.

Institutional Controls: Legal and administrative mechanisms designed to reduce exposure to contamination. Examples include: deed restrictions, easements, warning signs and notices, and zoning restrictions.

Liability Relief or Liability Release: Protection from liability for contamination provided by a state government as an incentive for brownfield cleanups. Releases vary in scope and form, and can include covenants not to sue and some types of no-further-action letters and certificates of completion.

National Priorities List (NPL): The Environmental Protection Agency's list of the most serious uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites.

Natural Resource Damages: Injuries caused to natural resources such as streams, wildlife, and wetlands by contamination from a site. The government can in some cases compel parties responsible for the injuries to pay damages.

No-Further-Action (NFA) Letter: A written statement by a state government that it has no present intention to take legal action or require additional cleanup by a party that satisfactorily cleans up a property under a state brownfield or voluntary cleanup program.

Nonresidential Use Standard: A cleanup standard, usually expressed as a numerical ratio of parts of a specific contaminant to parts of the medium of concern (e.g., 5 parts of lead per million parts of soil) that describes the maximum concentration of the contaminant in the medium that will not present an unacceptable risk to the health of humans engaging in any activity other than residential or those other activities considered to be substantially similar to residential. The non-residential use standard is usually a less strict cleanup standard than the residential use standard, and a site that meets the non-residential standard is limited in its uses to non-residential activities.

Potentially Responsible Party (PRP): Under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), a party potentially liable for cleanup costs at a Superfund site.

Pro Forma: Financial projections for a real estate project, which include an income statement and show capital costs, operating revenues and expenses, and return on investment over a period of time.

Prospective Purchaser Agreement: An agreement between the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the prospective buyer of a Superfund site that protects the prospective buyer from certain liabilities for contamination that is already on the site, usually in exchange for a payment of money and other commitments by the prospective purchaser. States may also have similar agreements as part of their voluntary cleanup or brownfields programs.

Reopener Provisions: Express exceptions to liability releases or agreements that reserve the government's right to require further cleanup under certain conditions. These conditions typically include fraud by parties responsible for the cleanup, discovery of previously unknown contamination, and discovery that contamination remaining on the site is significantly more toxic than originally believed.

Representations and Warranties: Statements of fact (representations) and promises (warranties) that a seller makes to a buyer in a real estate transaction.

Request-for-Proposals (RFPs): A document that asks developers for a detailed proposal on development of a site. Proposals may include discussion of the developer's experience and qualifications and project-specific information on market feasibility, urban design, architecture, community appropriateness, and projected financial performance.

Residential Use Standard: A cleanup standard, usually expressed as a numerical ratio of parts of a specific contaminant to parts of the medium of concern (e.g., 5 parts of lead per million parts of soil), which describes the maximum concentration of the contaminant in the medium that will not present an unacceptable risk to the health of humans residing on the site, or engaging in activities on the site that are considered to be substantially similar to residing on the site. The residential use standard is usually the strictest cleanup standard, and a site that meets this standard can usually be used for any purpose.

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA): A federal statute that regulates the generation, transportation, storage, treatment and disposal of hazardous waste. RCRA programs include the Corrective Action and Underground Storage Tank Programs.

Restrictive Covenant: A specific type of deed restriction. For example, a restrictive covenant could prohibit commercial uses.

Risk Assessment: A study or evaluation that identifies and in many cases quantifies the potential harm posed to health and the environment by contamination on a property.

Running With the Land: An obligation or right that attaches to a property and passes to the new owner after the land is sold.

Superfund: See the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act.

Tax Increment Financing (TIF): A mechanism that allows local governments to use future projected taxes to finance current infrastructure investments.

Tax Credits: Incentives to invest in a development that reduce liability for taxes that otherwise would be incurred.

Toxic Tort Action: A legal proceeding brought to seek damages for personal injury or property damage incurred as a result of exposure to a hazardous substance.

Uncertainty Premium: The amount that the buyer of a property subtracts or discounts from the purchase price to reflect the risk of unexpected environmental assessment and cleanup costs.

Use Permit: A type of variance that authorizes an otherwise unacceptable use on a property without changing its zoning.

Variance: An individual exception to a land-use restriction or other legal standard granted because of special circumstances.

Voluntary Cleanups: Cleanups of identified contamination that are not court or agency ordered. Most states have voluntary cleanup programs that encourage voluntary cleanups and that may provide benefits if volunteers meet specified standards.