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Brownfields Sites Poised for Big Funding Amid Equity Concerns

Dec. 8, 2021, 8:25 PM

Plans to use billions of infrastructure dollars to clean up and redevelop long-neglected brownsfield waste sites may cause unintended harm to low-income neighborhoods, advocates warned a House panel Wednesday.

A “chronic underfunding” of the Environmental Protection Agency’s program has created a backlog and left one in four applications for local brownfield projects without funding each year, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said at the hearing. The infrastructure investment is projected to generate $30 billion in added private sector investments and 150,000 new jobs, he said.

But environmental justice advocates told lawmakers that the program could lead to unintended consequences, such as gentrification that raises housing costs for poor residents. They also said some commercial and industrial redevelopment, including low-wage warehouse and other operations tied to trucking, can increase air pollution in surrounding communities.

“It’s kind of a slap in the face for communities” which have often pushed hard for brownfields cleanups for years only to see few benefits from redevelopment, said Mark Lopez, of the California-based East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice.

Converting the sites into warehouse operations primarily served by diesel trucks can expose the community to more pollution and increase health risks, he told the panel.

The redeveloped commercial and industrial sites often displace what might have been alternatives providing more marketable job skills and career opportunities, Lopez said. Warehouse sites typically come with a large “footprint,” preventing alternative development that might provide greater pay-offs for residents, he said.

The bipartisan infrastructure package provides $1.5 billion for such brownfield sites to help transform abandoned gas stations, dry cleaners, and other polluted sites into an array of new business parks and other businesses, lawmakers said at hearing before the committee’s Water Resources and Environment panel. The packaged was signed into law in November.

Digging Deeper

Lopez’s concerns were echoed by Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), chair of the infrastructure panel’s water resources and environment subcommittee.

She acknowledged that the EPA program “has, by most accounts, been successful” in redeveloping sites but that “if you dig a little deeper, there are questions about whether all communities have benefited from this critical redevelopment investment and whether this investment has actually benefited those who have had to suffer with legacy contamination for decades,”

The subcommittee’s top Republican, Rep. David Rouzer (N.C.), touted the brownfields program but noted there are hundreds of thousands of urban and rural sites that could be redeveloped.

Such sites are “often prime locations for redevelopment, except for the fact of course that the land may have some contamination,” he said.

Unaddressed sites “drive down property values and decrease tax revenues that are a blight on many of our cities and towns,” he said.

The brownfields program has transformed more than 142,000 acres of “idle” land for productive re-use, leveraging more than $34.5 billion in private investment, Susan Bodine, who oversaw the EPA program from 2006 to 2009, told the panel.

The program is generally considered successful because it’s driven by local governments and communities, with the EPA steering clear of local land use decisions and providing seed money for projects that can be leveraged with other funding sources including private money, said Bodine, now an attorney with Earth & Water Law LLC.

She noted several successful projects, including the 2019 opening of Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s corporate headquarters employing 1,000 workers in San Jose, Calif., on a site once used as a landfill. The redevelopment converted the land into an office park, trails, and open space, providing economic as well as recreational benefits to the community, she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at dscott@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rebecca Baker at rbaker@bloombergindustry.com

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