Communities Tackle Brownfields
Poisonous Environmental Hazards
by Paul Bush
They are called brownfields. The name sounds innocent enough, but they are anything but harmless. Brownfields damage neighborhoods and drag down local economies, even as they occupy prime real estate.
Brownfields are abandoned or underused industrial and commercial sites. Every city and town of any size in America is likely to have at least one. They are eyesores and their malevolent influence shows up in drug use, crime and negative health effects. The effort to eliminate them is uniting business and environmental groups and politicians across party divides.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors has made the elimination of brownfields its number one priority, finding that in a survey of 39 cities there were 20,800 brownfield sites. These alone occupy more than 430,000 acres of urban land, the organization states.
Cleaning up brownfields is now seen as an opportunity to revitalize America's cities while protecting the environment from further abuse.
"It really has sparked quite a movement in this country," said Elizabeth Collaton, senior policy analyst with the Northeast-Midwest Institute, a research organization based in Washington, D.C. "And the word (brownfield) probably wasn't even recognized five years ago."
For many concerned with the cleanup, the reasons go far beyond aesthetic upgrading and improving air and soil quality. "For us, it represents an opportunity for looking at a whole series of urban and environmental issues," said Rabbi Daniel Swartz, associate director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, which includes more than 100,000 Catholic, Protestant and Jewish congregations.
"You both have the chance to reduce the health risk from a site, but also reduce the health risk that may exist because it attracts drug dealers and attracts crime," Swartz said. "It even helps solve some welfare reform questions, such as how do you get inner-city people jobs in their neighborhoods."
In Minnesota, community and religious groups were responsible for getting government involved in the issue. In 1995, Interfaith Action, an alliance of congregations in Minneapolis and its first ring suburbs, along with SPEAC (Saint Paul Ecumenical Alliance of Congregations) in St. Paul, began pushing for state legislation to clean up brownfields around the state.
"Many of our congregations are located in the poorest areas of the city," said Jeanne Hanson, a spokesperson for Interfaith Action. "We were looking for ways to increase livable wage jobs there."
This year the Minnesota legislature passed a $19.4 million cleanup bill, with backing from Republicans and Democrats.
"It's a unique issue," said Russ Adams, director of the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, another group that worked for the bill's passage. "It bridges those who want to promote economic development and growth and those who want to protect the environment."
Contamination, or at least the fear of it, is at the heart of the brownfield problem. When older industries close, pollution from chemicals, metals or oils used in the production process frequently remains.
Developers, and the banks whose loans they need, have often been scared away from cleanup attempts by federal and state regulations that can make them 100 percent responsible for the pollution once they get involved, even if they don't move beyond the testing phase. But in recent years, states have begun experimenting with agreements that guarantee adequate cleanup without the threat of being sued.
Local efforts to clean up abandoned factory sites are generating jobs in other parts of the country. In Buffalo, N.Y., a former windshield wiper plant is now home to 700 software industry workers. City officials also say that over 1,000 union jobs have been created at a new American Axle facility, which was built on a 60-acre brownfield.
Elsewhere in Buffalo, at an old Republic Steel site, roughly $14 million has been spent erecting 18 acres of greenhouses. According to Dan Bicz, head of the city's brownfield redevelopment commission, the greenhouse complex is expected to produce 175 jobs and over 8 million pounds of tomatoes a year.
"Investing in the urban core is more cost effective," Bicz said. "There's a realization that it's too expensive to keep extending sewer lines and roads (needed by industry) into the suburbs."
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has funded 115 cleanup projects. As part of its standards, it requires that the projects include community involvement, and in some cities and states this has already occurred. In Indianapolis, when they heard about a proposal to build apartments on a local site, residents informed the city they wanted light industry and its jobs instead, and the developer complied.
This federal requirement reflects the reality of community power that even the private sector has begun to recognize, says EPA staff member Kent Benjamin. "Some lenders are reluctant to lend if they don't have the community buying in. They know that community disapproval can stop a project in its tracks," Benjamin said.
At a recent national conference on brownfields, community groups were given scholarships to make sure their members could attend. Of the 1,701 participants at the Brownfields '97 conference in Kansas City, Mo., in early September, 167 had been granted scholarships.
But not everyone is convinced that state and federal efforts to include the public are serious. "They try to bring industry and sites together. After the proposal has been made, then they try to bring the community in," said Fred Friedman, head organizer for Chicago-based Westside Alliance for a Safe Toxic-free Environment. "I think it's safe to say they don't view community involvement as a high priority."
Federal funding of cleanup projects began in 1993. But last May the Clinton administration announced it would increase the number of EPA-funded cleanup projects. It also called for 15 federal agencies to direct $300 million toward brownfield redevelopment.
Brownfield cleanup is drawing backers from all political quarters. "This is a place where we're getting real bipartisan support from people who don't usually support environmental issues," said Swartz.
Collaton agrees. "You see members of Congress on both sides of the aisle trying to lay claim to this," she said.
Approximately 17 bills dealing with cleanup and with funding issues are currently before Congress. But continuing debate over reauthorization of the federal Superfund program is holding up their passage. Republicans and Democrats are split over suggestions to dramatically alter Superfund, which cleans up toxic waste sites nationwide. Until the differences are resolved, brownfield legislation is likely to be stalled, says Collaton.
Nonetheless, a number of those involved in brownfield activities see this as a hot topic for years to come. "It's a perfect example of uniting environmental protection with economic development," said Collaton, "and that's going to be the clarion call of the 90s."
Posted: January 30, 1998