Just before its holiday break, Congress passed the biggest environmental bill of the year, a five-year venture giving states up to $200 million annually to clean up more than 500,000 polluted industrial sites.

The bill won final passage in the House and the Senate after lawmakers agreed that a federal prevailing wage law should apply to the new state grants program for cleanups.

The bill is aimed at promoting the redevelopment of abandoned urban industrial sites that may have lingering contamination problems. By redeveloping such sites, known as ‘brownfields,’ advocates hope to both revitalize urban areas and help curb the development of farms and other rural areas.

The legislation should help the Bay states meet a Chesapeake 2010 agreement commitment to rehabilitate and restore 1,050 brownfield sites to productive use.

The bill provides $200 million each year for fiscal years 2002 through 2006 for grants to local and state governments to assess and clean up contaminated brownfield sites. It also authorizes $50 million each year over the same period for grants to local and state governments to establish and enhance brownfields cleanup programs.

Also, provisions included by the Bush administration are intended to exempt innocent developers from having to pay decontamination costs if toxic waste is found on a site after it is purchased. But so-called federal Superfund law still would apply, putting responsibility on those who caused the spill or leakage.

EPA Administrator Christie Whitman said the legislation would cut down on legal wrangling by distinguishing between large-scale polluters and smaller developers who don’t deserve to be penalized. The bill also contains a brownfields-to-parks funding provision intended to encourage communities to reclaim land for public use.

Environmental groups described the bill as a win-win measure. “We consider that liability protection a blessing, because it specifically shields innocent purchasers who are trying to do something right with properties that someone else used badly,” said Alan Front, a senior vice president for Trust for Public Land.