WASHINGTON - In 1999, a jewelry factory in Attleboro shut its doors for the last time, leaving another downtown brick building vacant in the Attleboro region.
The factory was too polluted by the chemicals used to plate jewelry to be of much use. But then officials, with Representative James P. McGovern, Democrat of Worcester, secured a $1.9 million grant to clean up the chemicals.
This cleared the way for a precious metals company to move into the site.
The cleanup of brownfields such as the factory in Attleboro has become one of the federal government's most popular environmental programs.
But as legislators have poured more than $400 million into a program that helps them deliver visible improvements to districts, some environmentalists have voiced concern that it's coming at a price: While spending on brownfields grows, the government falls further behind in cleaning up sites that carry far more health risks but fewer commercial prospects.
''There is more congressional interest in brownfield sites because members of Congress see more potential for economic development," said Ed Hopkins, an analyst at the Sierra Club who studies Superfund, the federal program created in 1980 to clean up the nation's worst-polluted sites. ''They don't see that same interest in Superfund sites."
In a report timed to Superfund's 25th birthday on Dec. 11, the Sierra Club detailed shortfalls caused by the program's tight budget, which has stayed about level during the Bush administration, but which has declined by one-third since 1993 when adjusted for inflation.
According to the report, contamination at hundreds of Superfund sites nationwide, including 15 industrial zones and landfills in New England, has not been brought under control.
In contrast, the federal brownfields program, which began as an offshoot of Superfund in 1993 for less polluted sites, has been growing steadily. In 2002, President Bush signed the first law reserving funds specifically for brownfields, which injected hundreds of millions of dollars into the program.
The government's emphasis, according to environmental groups and economic development specialists, has shifted from sites with great danger to those with most economic potential.
''Brownfields really is a real estate and economic development program that happens to have environmental wrinkles to it, rather than the other way around," said Charles Bartsch, a senior policy analyst at the Northeast-Midwest Institute, a nonprofit group in Washington that studies regional issues.
In Attleboro, for instance, the old jewelry factory is laced with the chemical vinyl chloride, which was used for plating jewelry. Long-term exposure to the chemical can cause liver cancer, but the site isn't considered dangerous enough to make the Superfund list.
''Is it at the level of Superfund? No," said Michael Milanoski, the executive director of the Attleboro Redevelopment Authority. ''But it certainly cannot be developed without bringing the contamination to a certain level."
For city officials, brownfields programs can clean up crumbling downtown buildings, creating jobs, and discouraging sprawl.
Without the federal grants, Milanoski said, the precious metals company now planning to buy the old factory building ''was going to look at a greenfield site to develop somewhere out in suburbia."
''You can't achieve smart growth if you can't also put into effect a workable strategy for brownfield reuse," Bartsch said. ''You can't have one without the other."
In a further sign of the program's popularity with Congress, the House of Representatives approved legislation earlier this month expanding access to brownfields grants for medium-sized cities.
The older Superfund law has had a troubled history since it was enacted in 1980 following public outrage over pollution at Love Canal in upstate New York. The law allowed the EPA to force landowners to pay for cleanups on their property, but also instituted a tax on some chemical companies to pay for cleaning up sites where an owner couldn't be found. The tax expired in 1995, and the program has had to fight for funding ever since.
Environmental groups praise the goals of brownfields programs, but say the federal government's enthusiasm for such relatively small-scale projects as Superfund spending remains stagnant, is a case of misplaced priorities.
Many Superfund sites are at out-of-the-way locations such as abandoned mines that hold little potential for reuse, but that pose significant human health risks from chemicals seeping into the water supply. ''Our priority is on cleaning up sites that pose a threat to the public and the environment," Hopkins said.
The Environmental Protection Agency defines brownfields as sites where real or perceived pollution is getting in the way of reuse.
Because the law only requires a perception of pollution, about one-third of the sites that received EPA grants under the 2002 had no contamination at all, Bartsch said.
With its thousands of old industrial buildings, several regions in New England have been major beneficiaries of the brownfields program. State officials estimate that 5,000 and 7,000 brownfield sites exist in the Commonwealth.
In addition to Attleboro, the Massachusetts cities of Worcester and Lawrence have also received brownfields grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The growing state and federal interest in brownfields programs stemmed partially from frustration with Superfund, which some officials say moves too slowly and may have inadvertently helped to create the brownfield problem in the first place by imposing new liabilities on owners of contaminated sites.
Fear of liability frightened some developers away from buying former industrial land.
This was because they were afraid that they could be forced to pay for potentially limitless clean-up costs, said Robert Colangelo, the executive director of the National Brownfield Association, based in Chicago, who has faulted environmentalists for pushing for the Superfund law.
''The environmental groups weren't looking at sprawl and these other issues back then," he said.
David Bancroft, a vice president of MassDevelopment, said the federal and state brownfields funding had helped overcome the fear of legal liability. Massachusetts has a $30 million brownfields program of itself, which was set up by the Legislature in 1998.
''The purpose was to jump-start the movement of some of these sites that people were not looking at because of a potential contamination issue," Bancroft said.
''People are just petrified with what they might end up being responsible for, whether it was done intentionally or unintentionally," Bancroft added.
Colangelo said another factor leading to more attention on brownfields was the increasing demand for land, which was forcing developers to take a second look at urban property that they might have steered clear of in the past.
''They've become very attractive because the real estate values are so high," he said.
© 2006 Boston Globe