The Omnipresent Stain of Brownfields

essay by Frank J. Regan

If the public finds environmental groups chronically hostile towards industry maybe it is because of brownfields. Brownfields are polluted, abandoned industrial sites. According to the Sierra Club “The General Accounting Office has estimated that there are over 450,000 brownfield properties across America, in every state of the union.”

How do brownfields come about? In the beginning, a company comes into existence promising to be a responsible member of the community, offers jobs and products that people want. However, sometime during their evolution—due to greediness, an ignorance and disdain of our environment, or the pressures of economics—the leaders of certain industries believe it is more cost effective to dump their toxic by-products in near-by streams, let them seep into the ground, or leave them festering in an undisclosed and improperly sealed tank. Then, these companies file for bankruptcy or move so far away that public officials cannot get them back to find out exactly what they dumped, when, and where.

These polluted grounds, brownfields, are usually so vile that it takes a substantial amount of money (usually monies from a state or federal Superfund) to make them useful and free from death again. They are the wellspring of cancers, sickness, abandoned city sites that no future industry wants and a continual bickering between politicians. Because (as in New York State) once the funds have been set aside to restore these abandoned industrial sites to life, the top politicians either find another use for the money or begin squabbling about who should take the brunt of the expense--the public or industries? And, so, cleaning up the sites gets stalled. In the end, as according to Environmental Advocates of New York, in New York “This has left nearly 800 recognized Superfund sites uncleaned, and another 2000 sites in need of testing.”

The real tragedy of brownfields is the underlying assumption within the voting public that brownfields are the price we have to pay for a vibrant economy. Thousands of children getting sick and innumerable pockmarks of toxic wastelands in every city are an acceptable part of business. This illogical premise means that not only will most brownfields go uncleaned and unnoticed, but also we will continue to allow this steady blight to occur in our land until it poisons us all. (It may well already have, as there are trace measures of mercury in most of us, and most of the fish in the Great Lakes.) Furthermore, brownfields induce sprawl (poorly planned development) because industry does not want to have to clean up an inner city toxic site before they begin their own industry and so move to the outskirts of the city in an undeveloped parcel of land, which means in most cases creating a toxic site themselves. The truth is that in the United States industry is an entity that exists as if in a virtual world where money is its only concern, its only substance for survival, our land and water being in actuality an inexhaustible drainpipe for toxic waste.

Without the watchful eye of environmental groups, brownfields would most likely go on polluting communities silently and tolerantly within our cities. Industries coming into a community would promise to run a responsible business and then quietly pack up their bags, after poisoning the ground they occupied, and move on--even destroying the evidence of their disdain. When the relatively few companies are eventually brought to court to pay for damages from their resultant brownfields, these irresponsible industries tie our legal system into knots by proving the impossibility of pointing a finger at those responsible for cancer clusters. They heap insult on injury. So, the creation of brownfields will go on as long as we allow them; the effects of brownfields will probably last forever.