June 20, 2024

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced $300m in new funding to clean up and redevelop 200 industrial sites across the country.

Speaking on Monday from what was once an oil station in south-west Philadelphia’s Kingsessing neighborhood, the EPA’s administrator, Michael Regan, said his agency would allocate $2m to transform the site – which officials say is contaminated with lead and semi-volatile organic compounds – into a waterfront bike trail and office buildings. “With this funding, Philadelphia will be able to work with this site and reconnect Kingsessing to the riverfront,” Regan said.

On Tuesday, the agency announced an additional $14m for environmental job training grants under its brownfields job training program. Both programs adhere to the Biden administration’s Justice40 initiative, in which 40% of the funding from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) goes to historically disadvantaged communities, the agency said.

The EPA has worked with local partners to clean up and redevelop thousands of such brownfields over the past 30 years.

But under a $1.5bn boost from the BIL, the EPA said it had increased spending on the program fourfold.

“It’s the highest level of funding and support for brownfields that we’ve seen,” said Lauren Ghazikhanian, communications manager for the Center for Creative Land Recycling (CCLR), a 25-year-old national non-profit focused on brownfields.

The EPA estimates there are at least 450,000 brownfields across the country, and that more than 149 million Americans live within three miles of one of these sites.

“Brownfields have, across the neighborhood, impacted the quality of our water, the quality of our air and the quality of our soil,” said Maitreyi Roy, executive director Bartram’s Garden, a non-profit public park in Kingsessing. “These types of toxins impede a healthy lifestyle.”

The EPA defines a brownfield as any site with documented or suspected environmental contamination that hinders redevelopment. They can range from properties as small as an old abandoned gas station to gigantic shuttered factories.

They are defined more loosely than the country’s roughly 1,300 Superfund sites, high-priority areas where the federal government is involved in cleaning up hazardous waste or other contamination, said Linda Garczynski, a former director of the EPA’s brownfields program.

The EPA first launched its brownfields program in the 1990s with just $2m in pilot funding, Garczynski said.

“We were bombarded with applications,” she said. “It became very, very evident that the need was just massive.”

Brownfields, Black communities

Across the US, communities of color are most burdened by brownfields.

According to EPA data, about one in 10 people live within half a mile of a brownfield, and Black Americans are about twice as likely as white Americans to live within that range. Hispanic communities are also disproportionately likely to live close to those sites.

That proximity – largely a legacy of segregation and racist redlining policies – presents both health and economic risks. A 2023 study out of the UK analyzed several health studies of communities living near brownfields in the US and UK and found correlations between brownfields and poorer self-reported health, increased mortality, increased birth defects and other biomarkers of exposure.

“All studies found significant associations between at least one outcome and people living in closer proximity to brownfields or in areas with higher proportions of brownfield sites,” the researchers concluded, although they added that their analysis was limited by a dearth of studies and detailed exposure information.

The EPA said brownfields are often eyesores that can negatively affect local economies. A 2017 study, the agency notes, found that brownfield redevelopment increased nearby residential property values by as much as 15% and added tens of millions of dollars in local tax revenues.

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Election stakes

Those who work closely on the redevelopment of brownfields say its twin environmental and economic benefits make it a rare area for bipartisan agreement. Though the Trump administration assailed climate efforts and rolled back key environmental protections, Garczynski noted that the former president and presumptive Republican nominee signed the Build Act in 2018, which reauthorized the brownfield program.

Even Project 2025, a rightwing policy agenda widely seen as Trump’s campaign platform, expresses support for the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management (Olem), which houses the brownfields program.

“While the overall goal is certainly to reduce government scope and spending, Olem’s programs present the best opportunity to use taxpayer dollars to execute EPA’s core mission of cleaning up contamination,” the platform reads.

Still, advocates remain concerned about potential funding rollbacks if Trump is re-elected. Elizabeth Kluesner, executive director of the non-profit Minnesota Brownfields, said that despite typical bipartisan support for brownfields, those kinds of details can get lost in larger political fights.

“Frequently the EPA appropriations process gets tangled in a lot of politics, and you see issues of defunding for these programs,” she said.

Even with funding, a tricky job

An EPA database shows there are at least eight brownfields within just half a mile of where Regan made his announcement on Monday.

In 2019, a huge explosion and fire shut down a nearby 150-year-old oil refinery, leaving a vast, 1,300-acre (526-hectare) brownfield in its wake.

The land is now being redeveloped, with political leaders touting jobs, economic development and cleaner air. But members of Philly Thrive, a local environmental justice organization, have voiced concerns about remaining and future environmental hazards and the extent to which local communities will truly benefit.

“You have to have community involvement,” said Mark Clincy, a nearby resident and member of Philly Thrive. “Until you give us a seat at the table, we’re going to be fighting back.”

Kluesner said that many state and federal programs were prioritizing grant applications that demonstrate developers have engaged with the community and detail how redevelopment will actually benefit nearby residents.

In Philadelphia, the latest announcement drew mostly praise from neighbors. As Regan was wrapping up his remarks on Monday, Shone London, 23, sat at a nearby dock casting a fishing line into the waters of the Schuylkill. A lifelong resident of the surrounding neighborhood, London had taken up fishing just a year earlier and was excited to learn the land around him would be cleaned up and provide more access to the river.

“That’ll be real nice, since you won’t have to go through the streets and all that,” London said. “It will be safer.”

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