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If These Brownfields Could Talk

Categories: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)

For more than 100 years, the American Brass Company operated a brass and copper foundry in the center of Kenosha, Wisconsin. When the factory closed in 2000, a wasteland of contaminants was left behind. Kenosha city officials knew about the closing and had their eyes on the land—a sprawling 29 acres—for redevelopment even before the factory officially closed.

In 1996, city officials had started discussing redevelopment plans with the community. But the soil on the site was contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, metals, oil, volatile organic compounds, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Think of a brownfield site as land that has a past. The sites once were home to industrial plants, gas stations, dumps, and other industrial activities that may have contaminated them. These urban sites, however, can be redeveloped in ways that help the environment and the community.

When Kenosha acquired ownership of the American Brass Company site, they engaged with developmental contractor TRC. In 2004, TRC asked the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (WDHS) for help in remediating and redeveloping the site.

WDHS prepared a health consultation on the contaminants at the site as part of a cooperative agreement with ATSDR. ATSDR helped review the plan to restore the site to healthful use.

Even though the contaminants were removed, a concern for the potential of vapor intrusion into buildings remained. ATSDR and WDHS reviewed the developer’s remediation plan and concluded that there was not a public health threat.

In addition to vapor intrusion, says Leann Bing, an ATSDR environmental health scientist, sites have posed threats such as lead, unexploded bombs, and hydrogen sulfide.

ATSDR’s Brownfield/Land Use Initiative helps communities make sense of the challenges a site poses and gives them methods to apply to ensure that future development will protect the community’s health, Bing said. The agency’s Brownfield/Land Use Initiative has four components. It consists of public health assessments and consultations, a tool kit, action model activities, and publications.

To protect people’s health as the site is used in the future, ATSDR conducts health assessments and health consultations on brownfields. “We encourage people to please think about what the contamination is to the site before they build,” Bing said. “We look at past, present, and future exposure pathways.”

ATSDR has five possible classifications for sites, including ones involving brownfields:

  • urgent public health hazard,
  • public health hazard,
  • information for decision not available,
  • no harm expected, and
  • no harm.

These classifications help communities understand how significant the contamination may be and what steps they need to take to redevelop lands for future use.

Former brownfield site Atlantic Station in Atlanta

Former brownfield site Atlantic Station in Atlanta

Once communities address the potential health concerns of past contamination, redevelopment can lead to a new future for previously “unusable” land. For example Atlantic Station in Atlanta, Georgia stands on one of the largest brownfields in the United States. In its past life, Atlantic Station was a steel mill. Now, the property is one of Atlanta’s hottest entertainment districts with hotels, condominiums, apartments, office space, restaurants, shops, department stores, parks, and a movie theater.

Back in Kenosha, the American Brass Company site was transformed into a mixed-use development with a shopping center that’s anchored with a grocery store, housing, and commercial space.

The number of brownfields in the United States is staggering. ATSDR estimates that there are about 450,000 sites. And the public health agency has created tools to help communities redevelop these sites.

ATSDR’s Tools for Healthy Communities and Successful Land Reuse describes a five-step process:

  1. Organize the development community.
  2. Evaluate environmental and health issues.
  3. Communicate risk or health issues to development community.
  4. Redesign community with health in mind.
  5. Measure success: environment and health change.

Bing recommends communities evaluate contamination—whether with ATSDR or another environmental health agency—before starting a project. You never know what things from a brownfield site’s past could be a potential health threat to someone today. But by following the steps in ATSDR’s toolkit, these threats can be contained and the land can be restored to serve the people who live nearby.

For another example of successful land reuse, please see ATSDR Empowers Community Revitalization Vision.

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