Archive for the ‘Brownfields’ Category

Tetrachloroethylene: Harder to Clean Up Than It Is to Say

Photo by Simon Law. Some rights reseved.

If you thought your clothes were filthy before you took them to the dry cleaner, the Environmental Protection Agency wants to let you in on a dirty little secret: the dry cleaning solvent tetrachloroethylene, also known by the slightly pithier moniker perchloroethylene, has been considered by the EPA to be a possible or probable human carcinogen since the mid-1980s. Its toxicity at low levels, mobility in groundwater, and sufficient density for it to sink below the water table have proven it to be somewhat more difficult to clean up after than oil spills. But boy, does it get the stains out.

And the EPA is trying to do something about it: the agency announced this week that it has awarded $69,000 in grant money to the New York State Pollution Prevention Institution at the Rochester Institute of Technology, which will work to promote alternative cleaning methods, including “wet cleaning,” which employs water-based biodegradable detergents. The Institute will advise and provide assistance to two cleaners as they convert to wet cleaning, and will them disseminate information to similar businesses. The grant was facilitated by EPA Region 2’s Pollution Prevention Program, which is hosting the “Unleashing Green Chemistry and Engineering in Service of a Sustainable Future” conference later this month.

And way out west, the EPA has  awarded $313,ooo to the town of Loveland, Colorado in the form of a Brownfields Grant,  intended for the cleanup and restoration of the now-derelict property that was once the home of “Leslie the Cleaner”: an assessment carried out by the City of Loveland in 2009 found soil and groundwater contamination from toxic dry cleaning chemicals. The grant will be provided through the EPA-supported Brownfields Revolving Loan Fund of Colorado, with brownfields referring to industrial facilities defined as abandoned or idle, “where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination.” The EPA estimates that there are 450,000 or so such sites in the US at this time; Brownfields investments have, since the program’s inception, leveraged more than $16.3 billion in revitalization and redevelopment funds and created 70,000 new jobs, primarily in economically disadvantaged areas. You can learn more about the Brownfields Program here, and read what we’ve had to say about it in Green Mien here and here.

Why Derelict Government Buildings are Like Brownfields, Why that Matters, and Why Paintballers are Paying Attention

Here’s a follow-up on last week’s “Don’t Forget to Turn Off the Lights Before You Leave,” our post about President Obama’s June 2010 directive to the federal government to dispose of unneeded and underutilized property — and about the GAO’s subsequent Testimony, released last week, reporting that the process was hitting a lot of speed bumps.

As the Presidential Memo has it, the disposal of property offers both economic and environmental benefits: the program’s primary hoped-for outcomes are to “eliminate wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars, save energy and water, and further reduce greenhouse gas pollution.” That is, the focus is on the unnecessary consumption of resources.  But I would argue that there is another, perhaps even more important, environmental angle.

Photo by SomeDriftwood. Some rights reserved.

That angle is brought to light when we compare the government building situation to the EPA’s program on brownfields.  A “brownfield” is likewise a property that is in disuse or disrepair — the “expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.”  (See our October 22 post on the topic.) The EPA’s program is designed to “help revitalize former industrial and commercial sites, turning them from problem properties to productive community use.”

The point isn’t merely that brownfields and neglected government buildings are similar. It’s that the way the EPA frames the problem of brownfields is applicable to both. As the EPA says about brownfields, “Cleaning up and reinvesting in these properties increases local tax bases, facilitates job growth, utilizes existing infrastructure, takes development pressures off of undeveloped, open land, and both improves and protects the environment.”

In other words, brownfields aren’t just bad because they’re eyesores or may be a source of toxicity. They’re also bad because they adversely affect the communities in which they take up physical and psychic space. They contribute to urban blight, and thus to urban (and suburban) sprawl. They are a drag on the larger project of rehabilitating distressed communities.  This is not merely an environmental issue; it is an issue of environmental justice.

Here is how EPA administrator Stephen L. Johnson described the brownfields project at a conference a few years ago:

[L]ast year I visited an inner city neighborhood. And I saw first-hand, that through the work of community leaders, where once stood abandoned buildings and derelict lots, now there is an urban oasis. By replacing plots of rubble with grass and trees, this community is turning urban blight into urban pride, reducing the environmental effects of stormwater runoff, and keeping rainwater out of the city’s overtaxed sewer system.

And just as we see with Brownfields reclamation, advances in the urban environment have led to advances in the urban economy. Through this collaboration, property values have increased by as much as 30 percent. Who would have thought that a little grass could produce such results?

For those of us with front and back yards, a patch of grass might not seem like a big deal. But when I was visiting that neighborhood, I noticed two young girls who were riding their bikes around one of the rehabilitated lots. Where there was once a plot littered with abandoned cars and trash, there is now safe, grassy land for the children of that community to play.

Now, it’s true that vacant and aging government buildings may not be a blight in the same way as plots of land “littered with abandoned cars and trash.”  Yet what that distinction misses is that both spaces have the potential to be transformed into positive, beneficial places.

And that brings up a final, crucial point.  Even if the government does succeed in “disposing” of many of these properties, a happy outcome along the lines of what Stephen Johnson describes above is not a foregone conclusion. Interestingly, one of the few blogs to comment on the recent GAO report is — which represents, of all interests, paintballers.  This “just might prove to be potential value to paintball businesses,” the blogger writes, in regard to the possibility of some prime real estate opening up.  That’s not (necessarily) to suggest that having paintball centers in urban areas would be a detriment, environmental or otherwise.  But it is a reminder that how these derelict buildings are reinvented could be just as important as whether they are reinvented.

Renewing, Reusing, Redeveloping Brownfields

Last week, the EPA announced the release of their freshly drafted Management Plan for the RE-Powering America’s Land Initiative. The Initiative was launched more than two years ago in an effort to promote brownfields (contaminated lands) as candidates for renewable energy facility sites, and the management plan lays out Initiative goals for the next two years.

The EPA currently tracks approximately 15 million acres of potentially contaminated land across the US. The primary goal of the Initiative is to turn this wasted and potentially dangerous space into viable renewable energy facilities, thereby diverting development of “greenfields” (undeveloped areas such as wetlands) for the same purpose.

Photo by Massachusetts Dept. of Environmental Protection. Some rights reserved.

The Initiative has clear developer appeal. One of the most compelling arguments for re-purposing brownfields is existing infrastructure – many locations already have electric transmission lines, roads and water on site, and are zoned for development of this sort. Given that these sites are usually tucked away from the public eye, developers are also much less likely to face opposition to some of renewable energy’s larger and more objectionable structures such as wind turbines or solar farms.

Pepper Hamilton published a great memo touting the Initiative earlier this year. The author points out that if Senate bill S.1642 passes, then developers building renewable energy projects on contaminated land could be eligible for triple credits “toward meeting a national renewable electricity standard.” Existing federal and state incentives have been assembled into a nifty database by the EPA.

Based on feedback solicited from stakeholders last fall and winter, the EPA crafted the management plan to address barriers to using contaminated sites as proposed. On the docket? Providing more guidance on the topic, promoting incentives, and clarifying liability protections. All available EPA resources can be accessed here, and comments on the plan will be accepted until November 30, 2010.

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