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Revitalizing brownfields helps rebuild communities

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We hear the term brownfields used to describe property by those in community development, economic development and finance. But, for an average citizen, what does it mean and why should you care?

A brownfield is a property that is not being used because it seems like it may have contamination on it. Brownfields are those abandoned, underutilized, blighted and/or contaminated properties in our neighborhoods — from old gas stations, dry cleaners and auto body shops to large factories, industrial sites or scrap yards. These properties near our schools, churches, homes and waterways can be contaminated with chemicals, heavy metals or dumped waste material from past uses that can linger on-site and create risks to people and the environment. In worse cases, those contaminants can sometimes migrate off-site, through the subsurface groundwater, to create a greater risk for the community at large. Unfortunately, these properties are commonly in marginalized neighborhood, causing risks and an environmental injustice to the community. 

How can these long-standing challenges be addressed?

What can be done to turn brownfields properties into community assets?

By definition from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), brownfields are properties on which real or perceived contamination has prevented redevelopment.” But, research can be done to find out if the former uses of the building had chemicals and/or operations of concern. And if it did, then the property can be tested to see if the suspected contamination is actually present in the ground or in the building, or determine there is nothing to worry about.  The risk of concern depends on the potential for someone to come in contact with enough of the contaminants for a long enough time to cause harm. Sometimes contamination may be widespread and costly to clean up to protect people and the environment. Other times the types and/or amounts of contamination might not require extensive or costly remedy and cleanup. The intended use of the property can play a part in what constitutes a risk, too. For instance, development of a property into homes, a playground or a day care might require a cleaner piece of property than a parking lot or warehouse, where there is less chance of potential exposure to contamination left in place.

Brownfields experts — such as environmental consulting firms, environmental attorneys and government agencies — use the terms Phase I and Phase II environmental site assessments (ESAs) to determine the level of contamination and risk on a property. A Phase I ESA provides a comprehensive evaluation of historical and regulatory records to identify real and/or potential risks associated with the site based on its history and the past uses of properties around it. A Phase II ESA provides details and analysis of investigation, soil, groundwater and air testing. The results of the Phase IIESA help determine what risks (if any) remain.

Reconnecting to Our Waterways’ (ROW) Economics Element Committee sees brownfield redevelopment as a unique opportunity for community development in ROW’s waterway neighborhoods.

“Assessing and cleaning up brownfield sites have multiple purposes: protecting people and the environment, providing peace of mind, remediating environmental injustice, and being part of turning something old into something new in the community that everyone can enjoy,” said Chris Jaros, ROW economic co-chair and environmental consultant at CTL.

There are many approaches to assessing a property for contamination. It can seem complex and overwhelming, but having access to experts and professionals to answer questions can provide direction and make the process seem less daunting. 

“It’s helpful for community members to have a high-level understanding of brownfields so that they are poised to be good advocates for responsible and appropriate real estate reuse in their neighborhoods,” said Emily Scott, economic development program officer atLocal Initiatives Support Corporation Indianapolis and co-chair of ROW’s economics committee. “Oftentimes, small businesses or nonprofit organizations acquire old buildings without doing appropriate testing first to understand the potential contamination risks which can lead to barriers to financing, unanticipated costs of remediation, legal liabilities or health risks to the people that use the building down the road. ROW and many other organizations are able to offer support with understanding these issues at a high level and connect properties owners, or individuals wanting to buy properties, with technical assistance and to resources to help.”

Some possible resources to assist in helping determine concerns, risks and opportunities include:

●      City of Indianapolis Brownfields Program

●      Indiana Brownfields Redevelopment Program

●      US EPA Brownfields

●      Local Initiative Support Corporation

●      Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority

●      Develop Indy

“The Indiana Brownfields Program partners with all levels of government, nonprofit organizations, neighborhoods and others to help with brownfields redevelopment,” said Michele Oertel, community relations and federal funding coordinator for the Indiana Brownfields Program. “Our role in brownfields redevelopment — addressing environmental issues to facilitate local economic development — is a vital component in improving the quality of life for Indiana residents.”

One interactive resource designed for small projects that may have brownfield issues with limited knowledge and resources is ROW’s Development Accelerator. This is a no-cost panel of experts to advise in the assessment and development of brownfields. Participants gain a basic understanding of possible and strategic environmental, legal and practical avenues in which to move a project forward. 

“The ROW Accelerator was a great resource for my project and provided a tremendous amount of information from experienced professionals,” said Sharon Clark with Aspire Higher Inc., a small, local developer. “They gave me insight and information I had not been aware of and most likely saved me from many costly mistakes”.

In ROW’s Central Canal Waterway community, Groundwork Indy, a nonprofit, is working with local youth and neighbors to identify brownfields and other vacant properties for community input and future planning along the Canal Tow Path and broader Indy area. ROW’s Fall Creek committee has identified a number of brownfield properties that they would like to prioritize and address over time to lead to a cleaner creek and more positive development in their neighborhoods. No matter in what neighborhood a brownfield exists, knowing about and working to overcome any challenges can bring new economic development and quality of life opportunities to those who live there.

Julie L Rhodes is collective impact director of Reconnecting to Our Waterways.

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