Expert Commentary

Going green together? Brownfield remediation and environmental justice

2012 study by Virginia Tech and the University of North Carolina on the cleanup of brownfields that receive federal grants and speed of remediation when initiated.

Living in poorer communities has been associated with a range of negative effects, from higher stress and less health insurance to lower rates of college admission. A 2012 study indicates that another item can be added to this list: A reduced probability that polluted former industrial sites — known as “brownfields” — will be selected for remediation by regulatory agencies. Moreover, even if remediation is approved, the cleaning process is likely to be slower and longer than in areas with less poverty.

The study, “Going Green Together? Brownfield Remediation and Environmental Justice,” was produced by researchers at Virginia Tech and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and published in Policy Sciences journal. It investigated if poorer communities received lower prioritization in the cleanup of brownfields that receive federal grants, and also looked at the speed of remediation when it was initiated.

During remediation, brownfields typically pass through four phases. The first is non-intrusive environmental assessment. If cleanup is deemed necessary, the next steps are: on-site measurement of potential pollutants; physical cleanup; and, finally, issuance of a “No Further Action Required” (NFA) letter from the appropriate regulatory agency, indicating that a site is safe for reuse.

  • Brownfield sites are more likely to be in communities that are both poor and predominantly minority.
  • Sites in communities with a higher proportion of minority residents move more slowly through the assessment phase of cleanup than those in other neighborhoods. Even sites located in comparatively poorer areas progressed more quickly than those in neighborhoods with a higher proportion of minority residents.
  • The probability that remediation will be undertaken and its speed appear to be influenced by economic factors. “NFA status appears more likely to happen and happen quickly when a brownfield is relatively isolated from other brownfield sites, when there is a future use plan for the site, and where the housing stock in its proximity is more conducive to residential redevelopment.”
  • Community residents’ collective actions are a potential factor in remediation decisions and speed, but the strength of the relationship and any causality was not specifically addressed by the study.

In conclusion, the authors write: “The collocation of environmental disamenities and lower socioeconomic status populations seems to be a factor of both race and poverty, the inequitable remediation of these disamenities appears to based on race, not on poverty. This … hints at the possibility that racial variation may not only be a concern in siting but also in remediation.”

Related research: A 2011 study, “Analysis of Health, Safety and Greening Vacant Urban Space,” looked at the health and crime-control benefits of cities converting underutilized or abandoned lots into green spaces.

Keywords: brownfields, pollution, poverty

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