In Oak Creek, Wis., a fence slashed with holes surrounds a barren 300-acre complex of buckling former factories where the soil and groundwater are polluted with arsenic and other chemicals.
Asbestos sprayed for almost six miles from a shuttered textile mill in Sprague, Connecticut when children trying to free a canoe set it on fire.
A toxic cocktail of volatile organic compounds, petroleum, hydrocarbons and metals lies along the banks of Massachusetts’s Malden River.
Despite about $1.5 billion in federal grants and loans doled out by the Environmental Protection Agency over 19 years, hundreds of thousands of abandoned and polluted properties known as “brownfields” continue to mar communities across the country. Some sites are contaminating groundwater, while at others the toxins’ impact on the communities are unknown.
The shortcomings are due to limited funds, a lack of federal oversight, seemingly endless waits for approvals and dense bureaucratic processes that make it difficult for poor and sparsely populated neighborhoods to compete against larger and middle-class communities that have the means to figure them out, an investigation by six nonprofit newsrooms has found.
In a written response, the EPA said its Brownfields Program “is not intended to address all of the brownfield sites in the U.S.”
The agency defines a brownfield as “real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.”
The stated goals of its Brownfields Program are to fund the cleanup of contamination, to improve the quality of life of blighted communities and to provide economic stimulus.
But an investigation by nonprofit newsrooms across the country, which was coordinated by the Investigative News Network, found problems in every community examined.
Among the findings:
- In Connecticut, only 19 brownfields properties have been completely cleaned up and certified since 1994, despite close to $60 million in brownfield-related grants and loans by the Environmental Protection Agency -- including $12 million aimed directly at removing or containing pollutants -- and millions more by the state. Even some projects with ready developers languish because of gaps in grant cycles.
- In Massachusetts, most of the clean-up funds have gone to former mill towns in suburban areas, where developers are eager to build, rather than to minority urban communities. Even more disconcerting, the “licensed site professionals” who monitor the cleanups are paid by developers, eliciting criticism about potential ethical conflicts and lack of oversight. The state only takes a closer look at sites if a problem is detected in paperwork -- a rare occurrence, critics claim.
- In Wisconsin, which boasts a well-regarded program, the state brownfields chief says it will take decades to clean up the thousands of contaminated sites, whose ranks have grown during the recession.
What’s more, the EPA doesn’t know how many of these abandoned properties across the country exist, where they are or how many have been cleaned up. Its public database is riddled with errors and omissions, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism discovered.
High-ranking EPA officials declined interviews for this article. The agency ultimately supplied written responses, many of which did not address underlying questions or criticisms, but rather repeated that the agency “provides funding and technical assistance” to others who assess, clean and redevelop brownfield sites.
Justin Hollander, an associate professor in urban planning and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University and author of several books on brownfields, said the investigation’s findings support what he’s long thought: that the program’s emphasis on developer-blessed projects is misguided.
“What we need is a new model,” he said. “In cases where the money is spent and the site is remediated and rebuilt, that's a good thing but it happens to so few sites that most people who live near brownfields have not seen the benefits."
In national surveys by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and partly funded by the EPA, the most frequently reported impediment to brownfield redevelopment cited time and again has been a lack of cleanup funds.
The EPA reports that it denies two out of three requests for funding.
Lack of monitoring
Even in those cases where it has provided grants or loans for cleanups, the EPA does not know how well the contamination has been remediated.
That’s because the EPA’s brownfields program merely hands out grants and loans. The federal government has not established standards for Brownfields cleanups. The EPA does not even verify that the work was done, according to a 2011 report by its Office of Inspector General.
The Inspector General audited 35 cases and found that in none of them did the EPA require the documentation to prove that cleanups met environmental standards.
“This occurred because the Agency does not have management controls requiring EPA [staff] to conduct oversight” to even assure that the reports meet documentation requirements, according to the report. “Consequently, decisions about uses of redeveloped or reused brownfields properties may be based on improper assessments. Ultimately, threats to human health and the environment could go unrecognized.”
The Inspector General also questioned EPA’s ability to step in and do long-term oversight of land that’s been cleaned, especially when states or the new owners aren’t prepared to do the job themselves.
In a follow-up report, the Inspector General said the agency promised to start training recipients and its own staff to better conduct “due diligence” in these areas by the end of this year. The agency declined to address questions about the criticisms for this story.
EPA officials rely on states to set and enforce environmental standards in brownfields cleanups. Some increasingly cash-strapped states are relying on the developers themselves to hire consultants to verify the properties were cleaned up.
In Connecticut, for instance, licensed environmental contractors are the primary oversight for 80 percent of brownfields redevelopment projects; the state checks up on paper, but rarely in person. Massachusetts’ Department of Environmental Protection previously inspected brownfields cleanups, but due to budget cuts it now mostly reviews paperwork filed by consultants hired by the developers.
Environmentalists in Connecticut worry that this system is “by and for” the contractors, said Roger Reynolds, senior attorney for the Connecticut Fund for the Environment.
“Carrots and sticks have to be part of every incentive system,” he said. “Hopefully, you can do 90 percent of it with carrots, but you’ve got to have the sticks.”
Plastic vapor barriers and other soil containment measures are all that states require in some types of redevelopment.
But sometimes, such efforts fail or the science changes. New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation decided to reopen hundreds of Superfund, brownfield, and other sites that had been remediated to investigate potential new threats from vapor intrusion, something that had not been considered at the time of the “cleanups.” The reviews are ongoing, but the agency has already found mitigation will be necessary at more than 70 sites.
Investors in Michigan were horrified to learn that trichloroethylene remained in the soil under the condominium they’d purchased, which was built at the site of an abandoned factory, court records show. The soil had been covered up, rather than removed. “The site later turned out to be seriously contaminated,” read an October 2011 ruling from the Michigan Court of Appeals. (Frank and Tonya Alfieri successfully sued their real estate agent for failing to disclose the pollution.)
There can be real and serious consequences to communities that live with these contaminated properties.
An environmental report earlier this year found that pedestrians who frequently walk past a former chemical company site on the Brooklyn-Queens border in New York City may be exposing themselves to an increased risk of cancer.
“There are so many chemicals in our society, and having these highly toxic sites is clearly a hazard and needs to be taken care of,” said Reynolds, of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment.
Program began in 1993
The EPA began its brownfields program with a $200,000 demonstration project to encourage redevelopment in Cleveland, Oh. in 1993, followed by two grants for the same amount to Richmond, Va. and Bridgeport, Conn. in 1994, according to EPA documents. By 1995, it had received more than 100 applications for cities competing for funds.
In a report to the Senate Subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics and Environmental Health last October, program director David R. Lloyd said that in its history, the program has awarded about 2,000 grants for environmental testing, “made more than 24,500 acres ready for reuse,” created more than 72,000 jobs and “leveraged more than $17.5 billion in economic development” through grants and low-interest revolving loans.
“EPA will continue to implement the Brownfields Program to protect human health and the environment, enhance public participation in local decision making, build safe and sustainable communities through public and private partnerships,” he said, “and demonstrate that environmental cleanup can be accomplished in a way that promotes economic redevelopment.”
The EPA Brownfields Program’s budget must be approved by Congress. The $167 million appropriated last fiscal year went to grants for projects, grants to states, municipalities and tribes, loans and administrative overhead.
Developers and state and local officials said the grants are a valuable piece in the patchwork of federal and state funds they must pull together to pay for redevelopment in blighted areas. States have developed their own programs, some supplementing EPA funds with state or municipal money or special taxes.
But each EPA brownfields cleanup grant is so small – typically capped at $200,000 – that the program’s ability to influence what kinds of projects go forward is limited. In many cases, the grants are a bonus or seed, depending on what point in the process they arrive. Since its inception, the EPA’s brownfields program has funded fewer than 900 cleanups across the country, according to its latest report.
The agency is supposed to favor those communities that struggle the most.
Federal law states that in weighing grant proposals, among the factors the EPA should consider is “the extent to which a grant will meet the needs of a community that has an inability to draw on other sources of funding for environmental remediation and subsequent redevelopment of the area in which a brownfield site is located because of the small population or low income of the community.”
In worksheets EPA officials use to evaluate grant applications, “community need” makes up 15 out of a maximum 107 points. How much sway a community’s poverty level had in any individual grant is impossible to know because the agency won’t provide the information publicly.
When asked by the Investigative News Network for score sheets through a public records request, the EPA produced documents that were so heavily redacted that they might as well have been blank. It said the narrative assessments by its staff are part of the “deliberative process” and thus not public record.
The agency did not answer questions about how many of its grants go to poor neighborhoods. It said it awards “nearly half” to communities with fewer than 100,000 residents.
Urban policy experts and state officials say that the EPA and state programs in effect function less as environmental protection programs than building programs. Projects must find willing developers, investors or other grants to show viability before the agency will award a cleanup grant.
“The brownfields projects, at the end of the day, are real estate transactions and real estate projects and if the development has no likelihood of success, that process will likely not result in a cleanup,” said Graham Stevens, brownfields coordinator for Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
Municipalities point out that one huge benefit of these redevelopments is that they return idle land to the tax rolls, generating revenue that ultimately benefits the communities.
Hollander, the Tufts University professor and author, said that the program will never clean up enough properties to make a significant difference because it’s too expensive.
“The problem is just so massive that using the [developer-driven] model to deal with all the brownfields would bankrupt the federal government,” he said.
Hollander said communities would be better served if federal money was spent creating parks, bird sanctuaries and other green spaces where plants can be used to clean up the soil, instead of multi-million dollar developments.
“When you look at the amount of money spent to subsidize the development of a shopping mall on a former brownfield, you can create a safer soil in hundreds of other locations that would be a better use of that money,” he said.
Unknown number of brownfields
The EPA states that 450,000 to 1 million brownfields properties lie fallow across the country, a range it attributes to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. EPA officials said the agency doesn’t “spend any time counting” polluted parcels.
Many communities have not inventoried their properties and the EPA said it doesn’t know where they all are. Its public database contains about 17,000 records, generally only those that EPA has funded for assessments or cleanups, and the data are provided by the grant-seekers.
Since 1995, the EPA has awarded more than twice as much in grants for assessments than cleanups -- $480 million compared to $158 million, according to Lloyd’s 2011 testimony to a Senate subcommittee. It has given out an additional $400 million in loans, the agency said, but those must be paid back. It’s also given $508 million directly to states and tribes over the years and handed out another $37 million for job training, the agency said.
Assessment and cleanup grants are capped at $200,000, with some room for exceptions.
“That’s not enough money,” said Jennifer Fencl, environmental services director for the East Central Iowa Council of Governments. The grants, she said, are “incredibly competitive because there are so many brownfields.”
Furthermore, the application for funding is so cumbersome that some municipalities hire consultants or band together to form regional groups to compete for the limited funds.
“The grant application is extremely dense; it’s incredible,” said Chuck Betts, executive director of the Keokuk Chamber of Commerce in Iowa. “It will take at least a year to write.”
Worse, communities often don’t know the program exists, are bewildered by the application process or have had trouble attracting a developer, the investigation found.
Impoverished neighborhoods are naturally less appealing to developers -- and, ironically, are more likely to be the site of particularly noxious sites to begin with, according to Dr. Daniel Farber, director of Northeastern University’s Environmental Justice Research Collaborative.
“Generally, communities with less economic power are usually targeted for the disposal of hazardous waste” and other unwanted businesses, he said. Often, a business may abandon a poorer neighborhood, leaving behind a legacy of toxins and pollutants.
As a result, poor Americans are both more likely to live with polluted sites and less likely to be able to attract a means to turn them around, despite the existence of the brownfields program.
Dozens of severely polluted, low-income communities across the country have never received grants, a computer analysis of EPA data for the Investigative News Network by a Duke University professor showed.
By contrast, some savvy communities have had no problem getting repeated grants.
Coralville, Iowa, has a brownfields coordinator on staff working on its $40 million Iowa River Landing District development, which will ultimately include townhouses, hotels, a theater, an arena and medical clinic at the site of a former truck stop, warehouses and scrap yard.
The town of 19,000 residents is squarely middle class, situated near the University of Iowa, with 14 percent living below the poverty line, according to the 2010 census. Since 1999, Coralville has received $1.9 million in grants -- the most of any city in the state -- from the EPA to conduct 109 site assessments and seven cleanups.
“I always joke when we’re hiring a new coordinator around grant-writing time that there’s no pressure on you, but everyone before you has gotten the grant,” City Engineer Dan Holderness said.
And the number of brownfields in America continues to grow.
In Massachusetts, officials said 1,200 new spots of contamination are discovered annually.
In a 2011 grant application for federal funding, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources said the recent recession has caused a “startling” number of plant closings.
It is, the report said, “an entirely new generation of brownfields.”
Kate Golden, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism; MacKenzie Elmer, Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism; and Jake Mooney, City Limits contributed to this article.