Now What? Polluted Brownfields Spring Up Throughout America
In Madison and Across the Country, Contaminated Industrial Sites Cause Messy Politics and Difficult Clean-Up Efforts
by Alex Lee, age 16
If you drive out the 800 block of East Washington Avenue in Madison, it is easy to see that the area is run down. Over the years, the neighborhood has been home to machine shops and other industrial businesses, but many now sit vacant.
East Washington Avenue and surrounding properties have been in industrial and commercial use since 1902. Now the area is contaminated with volatile organic compounds and metals, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Sites like East Washington Avenue are called brownfields. They are areas of land formally used for industry that are now contaminated with hazardous chemicals. The presence of contaminants at brownfields is associated with negative health effects. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there are 10,000 brownfields in Wisconsin and between 450,000 and 1 million brownfields nationwide.
Madison received $800,000 in grants from the EPA in August 2012 to fund, assess, and clean polluted properties owned by the city on the near East Side. The grants will fund the redevelopment and environmental restoration of a Madison neighborhood that has played an important role in the city’s economic development.
Despite the difficulties associated with cleaning brownfields, many groups are fighting to restore these degraded sites. Organizations hoping to turn around brownfields have the option of applying for up to $200,000 in grants from the EPA’s Brownfields Program and Superfund. This funding can then be used to help evaluate or clean up a site contaminated by unsafe substances.
According to its website, the Brownfields Program works with states, communities, and other investment groups to prevent, assess, safely clean up, and sustainably reuse brownfields. The EPA’s initial investment in the program generated more than $14 billion to clean up brownfields across the country.
The Investigative News Network coordinated an investigation between the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and five other nonprofit news organizations to determine the effectiveness of the Brownfields Program. They found that the majority of brownfields still do not receive funding. Brownfield cleanups are hindered by “limited funds, lack of federal supervision, endless waits for approvals, and difficult administrative system processes,” according to their report.
Poor and rural neighborhoods often do not have the resources to apply for the program or help clean up their brownfields. A statement from the EPA says that the program “is not intended to address all of the brownfield sites in the U.S.”
In Wisconsin, the DNR is not sure how many brownfields they have cleaned.
“I have no way of knowing the percentage of [cleaned up] brownfields. And I’ve been doing this for 20 years. It is just not possible,” DNR brownfields chief Darci Foss told the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.
More plant closings in recent years have created a series of new brownfields in Wisconsin. The DNR responded by establishing a Wisconsin Plant Recovery Initiative in 2010. The initiative has funded environmental assessments at 17 plants and made grants to Kenosha, Milwaukee, and New Holstein to make their own assessments. Overall, it has responded to 85 plant closings.
Another good example of a local brownfield site is a recently redeveloped property on Monroe Street. Parman Place, a limited liability company based in Madison, was recently awarded a $100,000 Brownfield Grant from Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation to help pay for their efforts to fix soil and groundwater contamination on the site. The site of a former 70-year-old service station will eventually be home to a three-story apartment complex that will include 3,400 square feet of commercial space.
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As more industrial and commercial sites are abandoned across Wisconsin, the number of contaminated brownfield sites will continue to increase. Recently, the Wisconsin legislature narrowly passed a new mining bill that will loosen environmental regulations for new mines. Under this bill, which passed on March 7, it will be easier for the mining company Gogebic Taconite to build a new iron mine in the Penokee Hills near Lake Superior.
Republicans in the assembly including Rep. Mark Honadel believe that this bill will help mining companies create thousands of new jobs in the impoverished area. Honadel also said that the bill will boost mine equipment companies in Wisconsin.
But Democrats and environmentalists say that the new mine would pollute one of Wisconsin’s pristine environmental areas. More importantly, it would loosen environmental restrictions on any future mines to a point that some consider irresponsible and dangerous to the health of Wisconsin’s natural areas.
In particular, members of the Bad River tribe, which lies north of the mine’s proposed location, are fighting to protect the land near the proposed mine. The tribe and other environmentalists will likely sue to block the bill.
The Bad River tribe fears the iron mine will produce run-off contaminated with sulfuric acid and sulfates. This run-off could then contaminate their watershed -- essentially creating a brownfield. Tribe members have spoken out against the bill multiple times. They are prepared to use “active resistance,” including lawsuits and grassroots protests at the future mine site, to block the mine from being built.
“We stand ready to fight and resist this effort to the bitter end until the mining company goes away.” said Bad River chairman Mike Wiggins. “We have nowhere to run.”
It is important for young people to learn about the politics of brownfields, mining, and the effects they have on communities. Younger taxpayers might one day be responsible for the costs associated with cleaning up these sites.
Many people don’t realize how interconnected government regulations, private industry and the health of local citizens are. An integral part of citizenship is staying informed about policy decisions that impact public well-being.
[Sources: WEDC Newsroom; Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism; Associated Press; Wisconsin State Journal]