Rebuilding Communities through Brownfield Rehabilitation

The idea to restore brownfields came out of mass protests for environmental justice in Cleveland, says Myra Blakely, Deputy Director, Office of Brownfields and Land Revitalization, EPA. “It started as a grassroots movement.” Blakely said poor neighborhoods and communities of color were disproportionately impacted by toxic sites.

Vernice Miller-Travis, Vice Chair, Maryland Commission on Environnmental Justice and Sustainable Communities, added that when she first tried to count the number of brownfields in upper Manhattan in the 1980’s, “we found 1,800 in a 2.5 mile area.” The EPA had to get involved because there was no guiding framework for rehabilitation. “Who’s responsible for vacant toxic properties?” This tough question and others had to be addressed through a regulatory framework.

While cleaning up toxic sites was about addressing problems in the built environment, the movement was also about community revitalization and health (see earlier post). “This contaminated soup was contributing to asthma and premature deaths in Manhattan.” A framework had to then convince people that “brownfield restoration could make communities safer.”

The EPA framework eventually created was further strengthened by legislation passed in the early part of George W. Bush’s term, which enabled small businesses and local organizations to better participate in brownfield clean-up. One important thing the legislation did was ensure local organizations didn’t have to go through local agencies to get funding for clean-ups. These local constituencies were often fighting with local government on toxic sites. “This helped turn environmental dead zones on their head,” and enabled environmental remediation.

These days, the EPA’s brownfields program conducts in-depth assessments and then invests in clean-up. While Superfund financing is used for the “nastiest” sites, there are a lot of brownfield sites that don’t qualify for Superfund money, but still need help so other types of grants were created. Cleanup grants have now gone to more than 1,400 urban areas and rural small-town communities.

The EPA also funds brownfield rehabilitation job training programs through community colleges and non-profit organizations. Since 1998, there have been 10 job training grants, preparing trainees to clean up solid waste, brownfields, and underground storage facilities. The program is also training people in bioremediation technologies — innovative technologies that involve employing natural systems to clean up toxic sites. Overall, 4,000 people, including ex-offenders, welfare recipients, and “lots of people who’ve never held down a job,” have been placed in jobs through the programs. 

Blakely introduced a few people running the job training programs funded by the EPA:

Carolyn Bledsoe, Program Manager, King County Jobs Initiative: “Hazardous waste removal is a high-demand job sector.” King Country’s program has trained 2,200 people and achieved a 70 percent placement rate. “There’s now a 3-6 month waiting list.” Each trainee gets 268 hours of training and ends up with multiple certifications. “Let’s not forget: hazardous waste clean-up is a green job,” Bledsoe argued.

Eric Treworgy, CEO, STRIVE East Harlem Employment Services: “Unfortunately, the oil spill in Louisiana has provided opportunities for some of our graduates. They need people with health, safety and welfare training and experience dealing with hazardous chemicals.” Treworgy agreed that multiple certifications helped trainees with difficult backgrounds overcome obstacles. Trainees get asbestos, weatherization, photovoltaic (PV) panel installation, carpentry and other certifications. The group also won a Department of Labor “Pathways out of Poverty” grant. In total, the program has trained 3,000 per year, and 40,000 in total.

Art Shanks, Executive Director, Cypress Mandela Training Center: In Oakland, California, the program started to help “fight povery, and fight pollution.” Cypress Mandela runs a boot-camp style training program that helps teenagers and young adults stay off drugs (all trainees must be drug-free) by training them for a range of green construction jobs. Shanks said it was particularly difficult because many entering the program have “chemical imbalances” due to poor diets and previous drug use. “We are now seeing kids who started drugs around 8 or 9.” Through the program, Shanks says he can redevelop communities and create graduates who are tax payers, instead of burdens on social welfare systems. “Our past graduates are also the best sellers of the program.”

Learn more on brownfields at the EPA’s “Clean up my Community” Web site.

This is part two in a three-part series on the “Good Jobs, Green Jobs” conference recently held in Washington, D.C. Read part one, Moving Towards a Green Economy, and part three, Philadelphia’s Cutting-edge Green Infrastructure Plan.

Image credit: Rutgers University

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