Administrator Gina McCarthy, Remarks at National Brownfields Training Conference, As Prepared
I’m here to talk to you about the Brownfields program and how it embodies one of the most important parts of EPA’s mission to protect public health and the environment – and that’s making a visible difference in communities that need it most.
I often talk about our moral obligation to act on big challenges like climate change. Improving quality of life for those who are overburdened, underserved, and vulnerable meets the same moral criteria.
It’s our responsibility to reach out to communities that bear the brunt of the effects of pollution and contamination. We owe it to them to provide the support, assistance, and resources they need to implement solutions. That’s what I want to focus on today, because that’s what the Brownfields program is all about.
Let me start with a quick story. Earlier this summer, I visited Spartanburg – the 12th largest city in South Carolina. At its edges are two neighborhoods – Arkwright and Forest Park.
In the 50’s and 60’s, Arkwright was where the City of Spartanburg operated a dump. Later, a fertilizer plant and a chemical manufacturer also set up shop.
In the 70’s, just as Spartanburg’s downtown area was starting to boom, Arkwright and Forest Park were shifting in the other direction. Streets were becoming dilapidated. Dozens of African-American-owned businesses that once thrived were now struggling.
By the 90’s, these two neighborhoods grew isolated from the rest of the city – literally. The single road leading into the communities was often blocked by standing trains. Community residents complained of noxious odors and waste-pond overflow into residential areas. Tensions grew and the environment was ripe for mistrust.
But in 1997, a longtime resident decided to do something about it. Harold Mitchell Junior formed a group to get neighborhood interests represented in discussions about the cleanup of nearby contaminated sites. “ReGenesis” was born.
The organization began to engage with local government officials and environmental agencies. They started talking about how to bring vibrancy, jobs, and green space back to community residents – who deserve those opportunities just as much as their neighbors in more affluent parts of the city.
In 2000, ReGenesis, Spartanburg County, and the city of Spartanburg formed an environmental justice partnership – with the shared goal of promoting equitable development for Arkwright and Forest Park.
In the years since, the partnership has worked with residents to identify their top needs and priorities, and has attracted millions of dollars to help meet them.
The first funding for these efforts came from EPA’s Brownfields program – and those funds were allocated to site cleanup and redevelopment planning. Out of that very first EPA grant, the partnership has been able to leverage over 250 million dollars for neighborhood reinvestment.
And since then: over 500 new affordable housing units have been developed; there’s new community health center and a new recreational center; and a host of new construction job opportunities are opening up to neighborhood residents at the nearby chemical manufacturing plant.
But what’s been even more valuable has been the reestablishment of trust. ReGenesis worked to facilitate dialogues between community members and the nearby chemical plant, with the goal of getting residents engaged.
Today, in Arkwright and Forest Park, the chemical plant hosts monthly community meetings to hear about citizens’ concerns. Beautification projects are underway to create a buffer between the plant and surrounding homes. And adjustments have been made to reduce the amount of noise, odors, and nighttime light pollution that residents used to complain about.
Together, the chemical plant and ReGenesis have worked to restrict the amount of time that trains can stand blocking the entrance to the neighborhood. And the city is now completing an access road that will provide a vital second entrance to the community.
The moral of the story is – there’s untapped opportunity at these sites, we just need to find ways to unlock it. That’s the power of community engagement, and that’s what the Brownfields program is doing every day. It’s providing that first grant, and starting that initial conversation. It’s catalyzing work that can turn a stalled piece of land into one that benefits everyone.
Spartanburg is just one example. When you look at the numbers, the magnitude of impact this program has had is remarkable.
The total number of properties assessed using EPA grant funds is upwards of 24,000. And grant funds from the program have directly accomplished over 1,200 cleanups. Since 2006, through funding to state and tribal environmental response programs, we’ve seen over 117,000 cleanups – and more than 1 million acres have been made “ready for reuse.”
All told, EPA Brownfields funding has leveraged over $23 billion in other private and public funding for the cleanup and redevelopment of these sites.
These are pieces of land that had been written off, sitting unused, dragging down the surrounding neighborhoods. Now they’re resources for recreation, jobs, and development.
You know how this works. It’s about empowerment. Brownfields are a way of unleashing the potential that’s locked up in a community’s land by cleaning up sites and empowering communities to put them to good, smart, safe use.
It starts with assessment money that comes right from the EPA. Those dollars go to cities, states, communities, and tribes so they can determine where there are Brownfield sites, and whether and how they are contaminated.
Then, we go to the next phase – working with state and tribal environmental response programs, our critically important partners, to actually begin to address contamination problems. It’s then the local programs that go in and oversee cleanup, to ensure that it’s complete and appropriate.
EPA doesn’t swoop in and decide what a site should become, or how. We empower those who are closest to the issues, the people in the community, to do what makes sense for them. Because communities know best what their citizens need – whether it’s a park, a grocery store, new housing, or a manufacturing facility. Our role is to fund and assist. We give money to states, communities and tribes and they build their own plans to take action.
This program is now 20 years old, and in two decades we’ve seen amazing achievements. Over the lifetime of the Brownfields program, for every dollar invested, we’ve seen between $17 and $18 leveraged in other public and private dollars. And Brownfields projects have proven to result in increased property values and in increased tax revenue for communities.
And at the same time, we’ve seen important benefits for the environment. When a Brownfield site is redeveloped, our studies conclude that between 32 - 57% fewer vehicle miles are traveled in that area – that translates to fewer harmful emissions. We’re also seeing a 47 - 62% reduction in stormwater runoff when sites are redeveloped. Those are major gains for the environment.
It goes to show, once again, that a healthy environment and economic opportunity go hand in hand. And through our success, we’ve seen hearts and minds change.
We all remember the old days, when cities wouldn’t go near a contaminated site. When lawyers would advise them not to touch a former chemical plant or waste site with a ten-foot pole. Pieces of valuable land would just sit there, languishing. Those days are over.
With each passing year, we see more willingness from communities and investors to take these sites on. People are no longer afraid to tackle a Brownfield, because they know what’s on the other side of cleanup. They’ve seen that this really does work. You can approach a site, safely clean it, and establish an end-use that’s totally compatible with any contamination that’s safely left in place.
Communities big and small are becoming more aggressive and more ambitious. They now see these sites as valuable assets. That’s what the Brownfields program has accomplished.
So where are we heading now? Today, we’re moving toward incredibly innovative uses of Brownfields and we’re leveraging technology to implement the program more effectively than ever before.
Brownfields grantees and recipients can now directly input data about their accomplishments and progress. That means we can get real-time data for each project about the jobs it’s created, the growth it’s generated, and cleanup statistics about each site.
And thanks to Mathy Stanislaus’ leadership, we’ve instituted an area-wide planning program that looks at groups of Brownfield sites holistically. It aligns federal funding make sure what we’re doing at EPA at a particular site is in lock step with projects that other agencies are backing. This helps sites get what they need from across the federal agencies, in terms of infrastructure, planning, and dollars. That’s big.
And of course, we’re continuing to push forward on equity and justice at every turn. Our studies have found that populations living within three miles of a Brownfields site are more likely to be minority, low-income, linguistically isolated, and less likely to have a high school education than the U.S. population as a whole. So our focus on equity has never been more important.
That’s why we’re operating under an EPA-wide strategy to make a visible difference in environmentally overburdened, underserved, and economically distressed communities.
The Brownfields program embodies this goal. It’s all about strengthening collaborations with the communities we serve, and ensuring all of our partners and diverse voices are at the table to achieve outcomes that are meaningful, and that matter.
So to close out, I want to share another quick story, and this one takes place right in your backyard.
I visited Little Village on the southwest side of Chicago back in 2013. That community is home to the largest Mexican-American population in the city. Little Village used to be home to several industrial sites, including coal-fired power plants, metals manufacturing facilities, and asphalt roofing products plants.
Today in Little Village, over 90,000 people are packed within 5-square-mile area. They experience 16% unemployment and 31% poverty. And it’s one of the two neighborhoods in Chicago most in need of open space, with a 78 acre deficit.
In 1994, a group of local parents formed the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. After a decade of engagement and hard work, the organization helped establish La Villita Park, a shared community space that sits at a former Superfund site. After a successful cleanup, the 24 acre site is now a public green-space, with recreation areas available for the whole community to use.
The City and Chicago Park District worked closely with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, and coordinated with EPA and the Illinois EPA on plans for the park. Area residents provided feedback on design ideas and chose La Villita Park as the facility’s name.
When Mayor Emanuel spoke at the Park’s ribbon cutting just last year, he celebrated the fact that the 6,000 children living within a 10-minute walk of the park now have access to green space. For many of those kids, it’s the first time they’ve ever been able to walk to a park. That’s making a visible difference.
I want to close by thanking everyone who has been and continues to be part of the Brownfields program—everyone in this room, as well as your colleagues, partners, and collaborators.
You are doing such important work. We need to keep pushing the envelope together. And we need to keep engaging communities. Because equity and environmental justice are part of our mission. Thank you.