Brownfields Are Fertile Ground for EPA — Land&People

This article originally appeared in Land & People, Spring, 2000

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency turns 30 this year. Its administrator, Florida native Carol M. Browner, has led the agency for almost a quarter of its history. During her tenure at EPA, Browner has weathered the slings and arrows that come with enforcement of clean air, clean water, toxic disposal, and other controversial regulations. But a new program, in which Browner happily concedes "we don't have a single regulation" has become one of her more gratifying successes. Since 1995, EPA's effort to clean up and redevelop abandoned, contaminated properties known as "brownfields" has leveraged more than a billion dollars in public and private investment, created thousands of new jobs, and brought green spaces to blighted urban areas.

TPL is a frequent partner with EPA in brownfields projects. Browner, interviewed by Land & People at EPA's headquarters by the Potomac River, meant no slight in saying she hardly thinks of TPL as a national group. "TPL is a great example of how an organization works with local communities–not top-down, showing up and saying, 'Here's what you should do'–but rather learning from the community and then providing the tools, the knowledge, and the solutions for what that community wants. It's incredibly successful. They're a national group, but I always think of them on a local basis."

What makes brownfields such a cleanup priority for EPA and cities?
With a lot of these sites you have the opportunity for redevelopment, which brings with it a whole host of environmental benefits. Environmental protection is not just about preserving a pretty place we want to visit with our families on a vacation; it's about protecting places where we raise our families. It's about our quality of life. If we can achieve a cleaner environment in the traditional sense of clean air, clean water, and bring with it economic growth and shared green spaces, it brings people to environmental solutions for a whole variety of reasons.

Do you see EPA moving from traditional air and water concerns toward land use?
It's not that we're moving into the area of land use. It's that with brownfields we've come to recognize that restoring previously developed areas brings with it real environmental benefits. An undeveloped acre produces less pollution than a developed acre, for example. Take Tampa, Florida, where they've recognized that if they can remove some parking lots adjacent to the Hillsboro River, they can significantly enhance water quality. Or in Atlanta, where a very large urban brownfield site, if developed, could decrease the amount of traffic coming into the city each day, and that improvements in air quality would actually be measurable.

What's really happening is that after the work of the last 25 to 30 years–we'll do this air thing, we'll do this water thing, we'll do this toxic thing–we've learned you can weave all these together to create something that is more than the sum of the parts.

What's the potential for converting brownfields into green spaces?
I see huge potential for greenways in cities across this country becoming the real magnets drawing people back into urban centers. One of the things I like to do when I travel is to stay downtown and take a walk or a run along one of the greenways. Almost every city is creating these, especially along rivers and waterfronts. As people come back to their local stretch of river, they want it to be clean. By bringing people back to their shared waterways, it means that not only do we get the brownfields cleaned up, but often that becomes leverage for cleaning up the waterway itself. Even so, isn't reusing brownfields still a tough sell compared to going out into the surrounding countryside and developing on farmland or forestland?

Let's remember that what you get with brownfields is all the city services. They're already there. But I also think more and more people are deciding to come back to the urban centers, because they see the benefits of not having a long commute–the opportunity to be home on time for a family dinner rather than sitting in eight lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic. One of my favorite brownfield sites is an old mining-slag site that's going to be a housing development on a river bluff in downtown Pittsburgh. It's gorgeous. The developers believe it may be sold out before it is finished.

What changes need to happen for brownfield restoration to move to the next level?
It would be great if Congress would pass legislation drawing some lines on liability for someone who accepts responsibility to clean up a contaminated site. I think it would bring a lot more developers to the table, and that's what we really need. As we demonstrate the economic success of these projects, we see more and more people wanting to take part.

Our programs will continue to grow–we have a whole strategy for that. But developers, particularly smaller ones, need some additional comfort. [Legislation] would make brownfield reuse grow exponentially. We've introduced a bill to do that.

How about ways to accelerate conversion of brownfields into green spaces?
That's where Better America Bonds would come in. It's a form of federally subsidized financing that local governments could take advantage of if they wanted to see a particular site redeveloped as open space. [Better America Bonds, proposed by the Clinton administration but dependent on congressional approval, would help communities preserve open space, clean up brownfields, and protect water through a new financing tool that would generate $9.5 billion in bond authority for investments by state, local, and tribal governments.] What frequently happens is that an area has a series of brownfields, and different developers work on different pieces. One way to make the most of the whole opportunity would be to connect them with green spaces, and that's where Better America Bonds would be very valuable.

Does the voluntary nature of the brownfields program signify a shift in the way EPA does business in other areas?
This program is so successful because we let the community decide what's right for itself, and then we provide the tools to allow that to happen. Also, we're counting on developers to make an investment. Brownfields would never work if EPA were dictating. But in other areas we can't be as flexible. We have to set a standard, as we just did with sport-utility vehicles [requiring SUVs to meet automobile standards for tailpipe emissions]. However, we went about setting that standard in a different way. We sat down with all the parties, from public health experts and environmentalists to the car companies, to get a shared understanding of what was possible.

What do you consider among your achievements during your seven-year tenure?
I'm so proud of the fact that we've taken every opportunity granted us and made full use of it–everything from setting tough public health standards to cleaning up toxic waste, redeveloping brownfields, and enforcing the law to expand the public's right to know. I really believe that we haven't left a stone unturned.