Brownfields Problems and Redevelopment Opportunities

Brownfields have become a critical element of redevelopment work in the U.S. since 1995. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) serves as the focal point for this land pollution cleanup. 

According to EPA, a brownfield is a site where redevelopment is complicated by possible presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or environmental contaminant.

EPA says there are probably 450,000 such places in the U.S., with estimates for Europe as high as 3.5 million.

We should note right here that European nations do not share a common definition. In Great Britain, for example, "brownfields" simply means developed land. On this site we are describing sites where actual or possible soil contamination has occurred. 

Site cleanup and redevelopment can be a truly interdisciplinary effort. Projects include aspects of environmental science, land use planning and regulation, and public health.  Sometimes an argument can even be made that these cleanups are part of community beautification.  

Without question, the best remediation efforts ultimately lead in the long term to the potential for economic development.

The problem with ignoring brownfields is that developers walk quickly in the other direction if they even suspect an environmental issue. They have heard that buying a polluted site, or merely one where pollution is suspected, is legally risky.

Some of you are thinking that you couldn't possibly have any brownfields in your community because you've never been an industrial town or suburb.

It's best to reconsider, because if you ever had a gas station, automotive repair garage, tire store, agricultural processing of any type, lumberyard or lumber processing operation, dry cleaners, industries, silverplating, mining, milling, power production, chemical storage, petroleum storage, or industry, you have properties that need to be considered.

To understand the full extent of the issue, visit the EPA brownfields site. We give great credit to EPA for beginning to use the term land revitalization in conjunction with brownfields. The distinction they make is that land revitalization concerns putting the cleaned properties back into use. This means that communities should proactively consider likely future uses of the land in determining the best cleanup process.  So if you hear about land revitalization, realize that it is a newer umbrella term that includes brownfields as one part.

Some of you are thinking that your brownfields are the "worst of the worst." These are called Superfund sites. These sites were identified in a major search for old contaminated sites that followed the passage of CERCLA (the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act) in 1980.  EPA now includes the CERCLA properties under its land revitalization description.

Waste at abandoned sites must be cleaned up by the responsible party, or if that party can't be found or can't pay, the federal Superfund can clean up the site.

We're being arbitrary about distinctions here, but we chose to cover Superfund sites under toxic waste as part of our Crime and Safety section.

Benefits of Brownfields Redevelopment

Cleaning up and reinvesting in brownfields typically provides these community benefits, at least when the site is located somewhere within the built-up area of a metro area:

  • Increases overall appeal and attractiveness of the community for economic development
  • Removes any public health or environmental threat that may linger
  • Reduces blight and housing decline in the immediate area
  • Increases nearby housing values from 5 to 15 percent, according to a University of Chicago study
  • Increases local tax revenues
  • Thwarts sprawl by providing building sites closer to the urban core
  • Often allows areas closer to the center of the city to embrace new architectural and development trends without harming the historic street pattern
  • Allows redevelopment to take advantage of existing infrastructure (streets, utilities, and so forth)
  • Facilitates incorporating energy conservation and other green features into development projects
  • Promotes higher density and intensity development in many cases
  • Conserves open space at the edges of the city
  • Adds currently in-demand jobs in areas in need of replacement opportunities for workers formerly employed in manufacturing
  • Creates clean-up jobs

Government Assistance in Brownfields Redevelopment

The EPA holds a lot of the cards in this game in the U.S. because they are both a regulatory agency and a grant-making and loan-making entity with regard to polluted sites. The grants/loans divide into three primary categories, which are described below.  A few other grants of less interest to our audience are also available.

• Assessment grants for inventory, testing, and planning are available to applicants that are governmental in character only. A site-specific or community-wide grant may be requested, with a maximum of $300,000 available for community-wide grants, and $200,000 for site-specific grants. A waiver that would allow up to $350,000 of this assessment and planning money may be requested for especially hazardous sites. Coalitions of governments may apply for $600,000.

• Grants to capitalize a revolving loan fund for actual cleanup are available, but again, only government types, not nonprofits, are eligible to apply. Historically there have been few new grants each year, and no new grants will be awarded for Fiscal Year 2019, for example. So the trick is to find out who in your community or metro area already has been funded for a revolving loan fund, and try to get in line for the next revolution of the door. Nonprofit organizations can receive funds from an existing or new revolving loan fund in your locale.

• Cleanup grants are the only one of the three major categories where nonprofits typically are eligible to apply. If you're a neighborhood organization, this is your category if you own the land. Governments and tribes also may apply. This allows a grant of up to $500,000 per site, with only one applications from an applicant permitted per funding cycle. A 20 percent match is required but can be waived for nonprofits.

As a word of warning, of course government programs can and do change all the time, so watch out. 

And yet another warning is that brownfields aren't do-it-yourself projects for small local governments or for nonprofit organizations. You might actually write quite a good neighborhood plan on your own, but there's not a chance that you can successfully compete for, receive, and satisfactorily complete an EPA brownfields grant without a consultant.

Maybe you're lucky, and you have one living nearby who will work for a low rate. After there's funding in place, EPA encourages and in fact requires community involvement, but you can't get there by yourself.

Now that I've convinced you that EPA is the place to go, let's muddy the waters by saying that HUD (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) became interested in redevelopment of such sites. They have sponsored the Brownfields Economic Development Initiative (BEDI) competitive grant program, but as the website so tersely explains, HUD isnt asking for money for this program right now. BEDI was designed to work in tandem with the Section 108 loan guarantee program of the Community Development Block Grant Program.

 So keep an eye on this only if you have a site that has a redevelopment plan, and then, don't get your hopes up.

The short message here is there's hope. There's money for clean-up, and the EPA will help you force the responsible party to clean up the site. Or put you on the list for federal clean-up if and when there's ever money.

States also have voluntary clean-up programs. These may provide financial and/or technical assistance to property owners who want to clean up soil, spills, or waste collections on their properties but aren't under any federal requirement to do so.

From this discussion you might think it was somehow illegal, immoral, or impossible for a developer to clean up a contaminated site.  In all seriousness, property owners may choose to clean up their own messes, using qualified professionals of course, if they are so motivated. And you may buy a contaminated site, and clean it up yourself.

The Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act of 2002 (called just "Brownfields Act" many times) spelled out precisely what one must do to conduct "All Appropriate Inquiry" before purchasing brownfields, tells about appropriate professionals, and potentially limits liability of buyers of contaminated property.

What Should the Community Do About Polluted Sites?

• The community can have an outreach program to businesses to encourage them to identify their own issues and fund a cleanup and restoration. The local government needs to become engaged in making sure that businesses take advantage of any and all funding opportunities for cleanups.

• In the case of abandoned industrial or commercial sites, the local government can be helpful by purchasing the property and presiding over the cleanup, relying on other levels of government to provide funding and expertise. If the local government does not wish to assume ownership, the community certainly can locate funding for clean-ups of properties owned by inactive corporations. Especially if the site is located in a low- or moderate-income community, the community may be able to use Community Development Block Grants to address the issue.

• Citizens and community groups can engage in a mini-planning process in which they think through the ideal land use of the property. It's possible that after testing, you may decide that it's not economically feasible to clean up every portion of the site to a degree where residential development will be possible. So it's a good idea to identify several alternatives.

• There's a business opportunity in flipping brownfields sites, and a few companies are doing that. You can advertise for investors and see if you find any takers.

If you're the neighborhood on the outside looking in at this process, it can be seem to move very slowly indeed. But persist. If there's a federal agency involved, they have to give you information, but the speed at which you're answered often depends on your own diplomatic skills and persistence.

The ultimate goal of a cleanup or an environmental investigation is called a "no further action" letter, in which some level of government certifies that no further action will be necessary.

So get going. If your community can afford it, clean up your polluted sites even when you think there's no market, because cleanup will improve the quality of your groundwater. And remember, cleaning is easier the sooner you do it.

Related Topics

  1. Community Development
  2.  >
  3. Redevelopment
  4.  >
  5. Brownfields

Subscribe to our monthly e-mail newsletter, called USEFUL COMMUNITY PLUS, which provides you with short features or tips about timely topics for neighborhoods, towns and cities, community organizations, rural environments, and our international friends. Unsubscribe any time. Give it a try.