Navigating Petroleum Brownfield Restoration

Navigating Petroleum Brownfield Restoration image
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Restoration of petroleum properties may fall under the umbrella of brownfields, which is a property expansion, redevelopment, or reuse that may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants. 

A petroleum brownfield is a type of brownfield site at which petroleum products or hydrocarbons are the primary contaminants. Restoring a petroleum brownfield—or any brownfield—requires thorough assessment, risk assessment, and remediation using mitigation techniques, cleanup, and liability management. 

When done correctly, using brownfield sites for redevelopment may benefit communities in a variety of ways, including preserving existing green space and protecting the environment. In the case of petroleum brownfields, sites like abandoned gas stations or legacy oil and natural gas drilling and production facilities may be good candidates for brownfield restoration and funding. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), of the estimated 450,000 brownfield sites in the United States, approximately half are affected by petroleum products, often leaking from underground storage tanks (USTs) at old gas stations. As petroleum products can easily contaminate groundwater—a key source of drinking water—there is increased pressure to restore these petroleum sites. One way to bring these sites to productive use is the brownfields program available in every state.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) allocated $1.5 billion to the EPA’s successful Brownfields Program. Two EPA offices—the Office of Underground Storage Tanks (OUST) and the Office of Brownfields and Land Revitalization (OBLR) are jointly focused on the restoration of petroleum-contaminated sites. These programs work with states to bring these properties to productive use.

Once a petroleum brownfield site is identified, its management and reuse requires specific planning and technical expertise, making it advisable to work with a consultant experienced in brownfield-site rehabilitation and its associated (and complex) regulatory framework. 

A site must first be assessed to determine the nature and extent of the contamination, taking into consideration how the site will eventually be reused. In most states, the potential reuse of a site can affect the level of restoration and site layout. For example, petroleum-contaminated sites that are meant to be reused for residential housing may require remediation of soil and groundwater to more stringent cleanup standards than a site being reused as a parking lot. 

Regarding the parking lot example, residual low-level contamination may be managed by engineering controls (such as paving) to reduce direct exposure to the remaining low-level contamination, whereas residential housing may require remediation to meet statutory residential cleanup goals fully protective of human health.   

Further, if the soil is publicly accessible or has a grassy surface or bare soil, residents could come in direct contact with the impacted soil. By removing the contaminated soil to the more stringent direct exposure cleanup standards, the direct exposure pathway risk is mitigated.

Funding Options for Petroleum Restoration

Numerous funding sources are available to aid in the assessment, cleanup, and redevelopment of petroleum-contaminated sites at the local, state, and federal levels, as well as through economic development programs. 

Federal Programs

Each year, the EPA awards brownfield grants to local government, states, tribes, and non-profit organizations to assess and restore brownfields under their jurisdiction. The 2002 Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act expanded the EPA’s existing brownfield program by authorizing additional funding for assessment and cleanup of brownfield properties, including those impacted by petroleum compounds. 

State and Local Programs

Many states have programs and resources available to provide guidance and financial assistance in the assessment, cleanup, and reuse of petroleum sites. Inquire about programs in your region from your state’s environmental agency or governing body, or by contacting a third-party consultant.

Private Sector Programs

Private developers are a major component of brownfield revitalization efforts. Once a site is assessed and a cleanup strategy is developed, it is common for the private sector to pay for cleanup efforts in recognition of the site’s reuse value. Often, the private sector works with environmental organizations, local businesses, private foundations, universities, or community development financial institutions to achieve redevelopment goals.

States’ Roles in Brownfield Restoration

States and local jurisdictions are typically eager to restore petroleum-contaminated properties, when possible, as these reinvestments can increase the local tax base, facilitate job growth, and provide new amenities, while utilizing existing infrastructure and protecting the environment.

By considering factors such as the contaminant release volume, total population potentially exposed, proximity or impact to groundwater aquifers, or drinking water well contamination, states have prioritized the potential risk posed by petroleum releases in their restoration programs. Likewise, states keep an inventory of brownfield sites that are available for investment.

One way of identifying and screening for potential environmental liabilities at brownfield sites is by utilizing a database like RiskFacts, a premier Saas (software-as-a-service) that streamlines property risk management through accurate property risk forecasting. This platform allows users to quickly and easy identify and screen for potential environmental risks and opportunities at a specific site using a United States property address.

Another example is GeoTracker, the California State Water Resources Control Board’s online database system used to track and archive compliance data from authorized or unauthorized discharges of waste to land, or unauthorized releases of hazardous substances from underground storage tanks. Other states have similar database systems.

The GeoTracker system allows the State Board, regional boards, local agencies, regulated industry, and the public to input, manage, or access compliance and regulatory tracking data. This tool is just one example of the lists and inventories of petroleum-contaminated brownfields compiled by some states and local jurisdictions to promote the availability and marketability of these sites. 

The State of Florida’s Petroleum Cleanup Participation Program (PCPP) is another example of proactive restoration. This program provides rehabilitation funding and assistance to property owners, operators, or responsible parties in cleaning property contaminated with petroleum or petroleum products. Many of these properties are located within brownfield sites.

Partner with a Team of Experts

Assessment techniques are specific to each situation and may include file reviews, ground-penetrating radar in conjunction with a magnetometer survey, or utilizing soil and/or groundwater monitoring to identify existing legacy impacts. While complicated, petroleum brownfield remediation is increasing in environmental and social priority and can be an important resource that a team of experts can help you leverage safely and effectively. 

Cameron-Cole, an ADEC Innovation, has 35+ years of experience specializing in assisting clients with complex environmental liabilities through environmental remediation, including analyzing and addressing brownfield remediation. Contact us for a free consultation and to get started on your assessment and remediation journey.


This article was a collaborative effort from our Cameron-Cole experts.

Jorge Caspary. Jorge has 25 years of experience in technical and management decisions in the areas of environmental assessment and site cleanup. He has also engaged with other states and EPA regional and headquarters regulators to provide strategic direction on contaminated properties.


Blog Author

Craig Smith
Craig Smith
Craig Smith is a principal geologist with Cameron-Cole. With more than 30 years of experience working in the energy, mining, and environmental fields, Craig specializes in evaluation of environmental liabilities for acquisitions and divestitures, remediation, and compliance and permitting.

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