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By some estimates, as many as 450,000 urban brownfield sites may exist nationwide. These former commercial or industrial properties can be found in nearly every community where, because of real or perceived contamination, the land sits idle or under-used. Brownfield sites can be as small as a gas station with a leaking underground storage tank or as large as a 100-acre (40.5-ha) abandoned factory containing dumped waste on the site. The sites are not remarketed or reused because owners or operators fear that, if the properties are contaminated, the regulatory requirements to clean them up could be prohibitively time-consuming and expensive. Furthermore, even if such properties were put on the market, developers, and financial credit sources would shun them in part from concerns that dealing with contamination cleanup could raise the costs and slow the pace of reusing the properties.

But the brownfields situation has been changing as local, state, and federal government officials recognize the dire need to begin cleaning up and returning these contaminated properties to productive use. These officials point out that reusing the brownfield sites not only would reduce the phenomenon of "urban sprawl" but would also furnish communities with the chance to renew the economic vitality of abandoned urban centers. In many metropolitan areas urban sprawl has been recognized as a serious problem, with developers turning to rural greenfields for their projects and thereby reducing habitat for wildlife and contributing to air pollution as commuters drive longer distances to outlying greenfield locations. Moreover, environmental justice advocates point to the need for cleaning up contaminated urban sites to reduce exposure to hazardous contaminants faced by residents in these areas. Together, these factors have created momentum for a national brownfields redevelopment initiative. The promise some see in brownfields redevelopment led the Environmental Manager of Portland, Oregon, to state that "Brownfields renewal is one of the most important environmental and economic challenges facing our nation's communities, calling for partnership among our federal and local governments, business and community and environmental leaders."

Although land use decisions are made by local authorities, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plays a critical role in the brownfields reuse initiative. On the one hand, the EPA's rules governing contaminated site cleanups, based on federal statutes, have played a significant part in deterring brownfields redevelopment; on the other, the Agency has been a major source of funding for brownfields pilots. In particular, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)commonly known as Superfundhas made brownfield sites into expensive liabilities, causing businesses to avoid them because stringent cleanup standards and related costs often exceed the property's value. Under CERCLA, new property owners can be held liable for contamination created by previous owners. The Clean Air Act also drives businesses away from urban brownfield sites because it burdens companies in areas not attaining national air quality standards, making it more attractive for them to locate in rural regions where meeting clean air standards may be easier than in the city.

The EPA began its brownfields pilot program in 1993 by supporting pilot projectseach funded up to $200,000 over two yearsat eight separate locations. The goal was to learn about brownfields, which the Agency saw as a new and complex territory in which it had little experience. The EPA awarded its first pilot in November 1993 to Cuyahoga County, Ohio, where the county planning commission had formed a broad effort to involve stakeholders in addressing brownfields reuse. The EPA described Cuyahoga County's report on its brownfields initiative as the most complete known to the Agency on the problems urban areas faced in reusing brownfields. Two additional pilots were awarded in 1994 to Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Richmond, Virginia. By October 1996 the EPA had funded 76 brownfields pilots, 39 under its "National Pilots" selected by the EPA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., and 37 under its "Regional Pilots" selected by the EPA's regional offices. An additional 25 National Pilots were scheduled for selection by March 1997.

In addition to funding pilot projects, the EPA took other actions to underscore its commitment to a Brownfields Economic Redevelopment Initiative, intended to help communities revitalize brownfields properties both environmentally and economically. In January 1995, the EPA Administrator Carol Browner announced a Brownfields Action Agenda, stating, "We at EPA firmly believe that environmental cleanup is a building block to economic development, not a stumbling block--that identifying and cleaning up contaminated property must go hand-in-hand with bringing life and vitality back to a community." The Brownfields Action Agenda included the Agency's pilots; joint efforts by EPA, states, and local governments to develop guidance documents to clarify burning liability issues; partnership and outreach endeavors with states, cities, and communities; and job training and development activities, including funding towards an environmental education program at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio.

The National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), chartered in September 1993 as a federal advisory committee to the EPA, in a December 1996 report expressed hope that the Agency's brownfields initiative would stem the "ecologically untenable" and "racially divisive" phenomenon of urban sprawl, in which urban areas were left to stagnate while greenfields were subjected to increasing development. NEJAC also emphasized that the brownfields problem is "inextricably linked to environmental justice" through, for instance, the deterioration of the nation's urban areas. NEJAC reached its hopeful evaluation of the prospects for the brownfields initiative despite misgiving by some NEJAC members that the initiative might be a "smoke screen" for gutting cleanup standards and liability safeguards.

The liability issues addressed under the EPA's Brownfields Action Agenda are among the most important factors affecting these sites. According to the Agency, the fear of inheriting cleanup liabilities for contamination they did not create affects communities, lenders, property owners, municipalities, and others. To help assuage liability concerns, in February 1995 the EPA removed 24,000 of the 40,000 sites listed in its Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Information System (CERCLIS), a Superfund tracking system. These sites had been screened out of the "Active Investigations" category and designated "No Further Remedial Action Planned," either because they were found to be clean or were being addressed by state cleanup programs. By taking the sites off the CERCLIS list, the EPA hoped to remove any stigma resulting from federal involvement at the sites and thereby to overcome obstacles to their cleanup and reuse.

In May 1995 the EPA issued guidance on "Agreements with Prospective Purchaser of Contaminated Property." The guidance indicated the situations under which the Agency may enter into an agreement to not file a lawsuit against a prospective contaminated property buyer for contamination present at the site before the purchase. Also in May 1995 the EPA issued guidance regarding "Land Use in the CERCLA Remedy Selection Process" to ensure that the Agency considers land use during Superfund cleanups. Land designated for reuse as an industrial site would require less strict cleanup than land designated for a park or school, a recognition that not all contaminated sites should be regarded as equally befouled. In September 1995 the EPA issued guidance that, among other things, released from CERCLA liability governmental units such as municipalities that involuntarily take ownership of property under federal, state, or local law. The EPA hoped this guidance would encourage municipalities to start cleaning up sites without fear of the Superfund liability predicament. These and other guidance documents issued under the Brownfields Action Agenda helped to clarify liabilities facing prospective new owners of private and federally owned contaminated sites.

But the EPA's guidance documents are regarded as only partial solutions to the brownfields problem. A report released February 1997 by the National Association of Local Government Environmental Professionals (NALGEP), representing 50 cities nationwide, stresses that the EPA's ability to "further clarify and reduce environmental liability for brownfields activity is limited," and therefore "legislative solutions" are required to make further progress on the brownfields agenda. Noting that the U.S. House and Senate introduced "numerous brownfields bills" during the 104th Congress and that brownfields legislation is likely in the 105th Congress, NALGEP's report suggests federal law should empower the EPA to delegate authority to the states with cleanup programs that meet minimum requirements to protect health and the environment . The EPA would be empowered to authorize qualifying states to limit liability and issue "no action assurances" for less contaminated brownfield sites. Those sites would be clearly differentiated from more seriously contaminated properties that warrant management under the federal Superfund National Priorities List of sites.

Going into the 105th Congress, federal lawmakers and President Bill Clinton agreed that brownfields legislation ought to be a priority. Underscoring the close link between brownfields and economic revitalization, Senator Max Baucus (D-Montana), the Ranking Democrat of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said at a press conference in January 1997 that passage of a brownfields billapart from Superfund reauthorization legislationwould be a step towards helping create jobs where they are really needed. Welfare reform added to the growing momentum for urban renewal and job opportunities. Representative Michael Oxley (R-Ohio), who proposed Superfund amendments in the 103rd Congress to direct the EPA to help states set up "voluntary cleanup programs" aimed at brownfields sites, compared the federal Superfund liability scheme to the Berlin Wall and said that it should be torn down. The chorus of voices joining Oxley has grown substantially since 1993, and today not only the EPA but also the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Department of Labor, and other federal agencies have joined states and local governments in promoting brownfields redevelopment.

[David Clarke ]



National Association of Local Government Environmental Professionals. Building a Brownfields Partnership from the Ground Up. Washington, D.C., 1997.

Powers, C. State Brownfields Policy and Practice. Boston: Institute for Responsible Management, 1994.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Brownfields Action Agenda. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1995.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. National Environmental Justice Advisory Council. Environmental Justice, Urban Revitalization, and Brownfields: The Search for Authentic Signs of Hope. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1996.

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A brownfield is a property which was once was home to a viable commercial or industrial operation but, because there is no longer an adequate market demand for that operation, the property sits idle, partially because of possible environmental contamination, waiting for a new function.

It is estimated that there are 500,000 to one million brownfields nationwide, but this number is difficult to confirm and there is reason to believe that the number is higher. Contamination will vary with the nature and size of the commercial or industrial operation that once occupied the site. A large steel plant may have covered more than 200 acres and may have contaminated the soil and groundwater with heavy metals, the concentration of which will be greatest near to the source of contamination and will lessen as the distance from the source increases. A dry cleaning operation or a gas station may cover less acreage and may leave behind contamination in the form of solvents, as may be the case for the former operation, and gasoline and petroleum products for the latter.

In the United States, the federal-level brownfield initiative evolved in the mid-1990s with the removal of less severely contaminated sites from the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) National Priority List (NPL), thus opening them up for redevelopment. The federal program has encouraged the development of state-level voluntary action (or voluntary cleanup) programs, with provisions including site-specific, risk-based cleanup standards, limitation of buyer and lender liability, and pilot funding for environmental investigations and remedial actions associated with soil, surface water , and groundwater contamination. Risk-based cleanup standards assure that the level of remediation is consistent with the proposed future use of the property.

Provisions for buyer and lender liability are important to protect the future owners from the excessive costs and other potential ramifications of environmental contamination that they did not cause. Pilot funding is provided by the federal and state governments as seed money to initiate and promote investigation and evaluation activities on otherwise inactive sites. The hope is that incentives will help to gather information that will remove some of the fears about site development and quicken the return of the property to productive use within the community.

In practice, brownfield development is very complex. Successful strategies for brownfield development are often site specific because site conditions and location, as well as the local and regional economic conditions, will dictate "what will work" and "what will not work" on a brownfield. Generally speaking, the most successful sites will be a mixed-use development inclusive of residential, retail, office/commercial and recreational space. In addition to concerns about environmental contamination, there are many factors that complicate brownfield development, the most important of which are (1) local and regional land use planning and real estate demands, (2) regional political climate, and (3) financing and the options for sharing financial risk

Liability with respect to brownfield generally occurs in three forms and all result in unexpected costs. The first occurs when the remediation efforts uncover more contamination than was originally estimated. This can result in considerable cost overruns in the site development phase of the project. The second form of liability arises when a nearby landowner or neighbor claims that they have been harmed by environmental contamination migrating from the property. The third form of liability occurs when future development on the property uncovers previously undetected environmental contamination. In Europe, postindustrial site development has the same complexity, but the approach and the role of the government is very different. It is difficult to generalize about Europe as a whole, but for instance, in the Czech Republic, there is a National Property Fund to which application can be made to obtain the monies required to remediate an old factory (such as a steel plant) that was previously owned and operated by the government.

Most of the discussion of brownfield development centers on urban brownfields: inner city properties, sometimes postindustrial sites, that have been idled because of changing economic conditions. Intelligent development of brownfields takes advantage of the existing infrastructure (transportation, water supply, wastewater removal, electricity lines, and gas conveyance lines), and minimizes the potential for future brownfields. A brownfield is created when there is no longer a need for the current use of the property and the property has suspected environmental contamination. If, in the redevelopment of the brownfield, one can preclude the occurrence of environmental contamination and design the building and infrastructure to have flexible use, then in the event of a change in the market demand, the property may more readily adapted for an alternate use, thereby preventing the site from becoming idled once again. Brownfield development also reduces the demand for greenfields, or undeveloped properties on the outskirts of the city, by reusing previously developed land.

In this way, urban brownfield development, sometimes referred to as infill development, can help control urban sprawl. The "Waterfront" development, in an urban neighborhood bordering the city of Pittsburgh, is a 200-plus-acre steel plant that has been converted into a mixed-use site including light industrial, entertainment, retail, and residential space. Within the Pittsburgh city limits, the largest remaining piece of undeveloped property was a slag pile. Currently under construction, Summerset at Frick Park will have more than seven hundred housing units when fully completed.

see also Abatement; Bioremediation; Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA); Cleanup; Industry; Laws and Regulations, United States; Superfund.


bartsch, charles; deane, rachel; and dorfman, bridget. (2001). "brownfields: state of the states: an end-of-session review of the initiatives and program impacts in the 50 states." washington, dc: northeast midwest institute. also available from

deason, jonathan p.; sherk, george william; and carroll, gary a. (2001). "final reportpublic policies and private decisions affecting the redevelopment of brownfields: an analysis of critical factors, relative weights and areal differentials." washington, dc: george washington university. also available from

internet resource

the brownfields center at carnegie mellon. available from

Deborah Lange

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Located in industrial zones in cities, or along railroad lines in suburbs and rural communities, brownfields are those sites where the factories, train yards, and commercial structures that were the economic lifeblood of the American economy were located. Now, the estimated 100,000 to 500,000 brownfields in the United States are abandoned or underutilized, and many are contaminated, or perceived to be so. Physical deterioration of the brownfields and crime are major causes of decline in many neighborhoods. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began a brownfields redevelopment program during the mid-1990s, giving $200,000 grants to 300 cities and other jurisdictions. More than a dozen U.S. government agencies have begun providing coordinated assistance and funding in support of brownfields redevelopment.

The extent of risk to the public posed by environmental contamination of brownfields is a major concern. Depending upon the amount and type of contamination, soil may be removed, a concrete or other impermeable layer placed on top of the land, and restrictions placed on future use of the land. Many brownfield sites are located in poverty-stricken minority neighborhoods, and brownfields redevelopment is an important issue in relation to environmental justice policies. Brownfields contrast with greenfields, which are fields and lots that were never developed, or only lightly developed. Greenfields are generally believed, sometimes incorrectly, not to be contaminated.

Michael R. Greenberg

(see also: Environmental Determinants of Health; Environmental Impact Statement; Environmental Justice; Environmental Protection Agency; Hazardous Waste )


Dennison, M. (1998). Brownfields Redevelopment. Rockville, MD: Government Institute.

Simons, R. (1998). Turning Brownfields into Greenbacks: Redeveloping and Refinancing Contaminated Urban Real Estate. Washington, DC: Urban Land Institute.

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