Is It Safe to Build on Brownfields?

In the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, developers clean up toxic sites for food businesses, day cares, arts organizations and more.
brownfields
Illustration by John Rego

The excavator’s teeth raked the soil, searching for the dirty history of 498 Kinsley Avenue. In 1899 it was a marble works, then an iron foundry and, lastly, for more than thirty years, Eastern Wire Products, which churned out miles of baling and coated wire on the banks of the Woonasquatucket River. Nearly four years ago on a snowy March night, the brick mill building, long vacant but for two medical marijuana tenants, met its demise in a conflagration ignited by an explosion from an illegal butane hash oil lab on the third floor.

By the time Farm Fresh RI acquired the three-acre parcel in 2017, it “looked like the ruins of Rome,” quips project manager Lucie Searle. The nonprofit, which operates a variety of farm-to-table programs, plans in 2020 to cut the ribbon on a new $16 million, 60,000-square-foot food hub for its own programs and other related businesses. But before Farm Fresh can build, it must dig. 

On a hot summer morning, Searle and Thomas Sneesby, a senior project manager with Environmental Strategies and Management, surveyed the blighted plain, dotted with heaps of broken concrete and bricks and the ragweed that had appropriated the cracks. Eight monitoring wells had helped the cleanup crews target the areas requiring remediation. 

Earlier in the week, workers cut through a six-inch concrete cap and removed two leaking underground oil storage tanks. The 450-ton hill of contaminated dirt, shrouded in plastic, awaited recycling as landfill cover. Plastic pipes snaking out of a pit carried the yellow-brown effluent from a sump pump to a large storage tank to a charcoal filter. The trench would be packed with clean fill and capped, and a vapor barrier would ensure no toxic fumes created by an environmentally dubious past could escape into the present. 

A key driver of the project was $480,000 Farm Fresh received toward the $1 million-plus cleanup from the Brownfields Remediation and Economic Development Fund, a four-year-old state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) program.

“That’s a lot of money to come up with, but this makes a very significant dent,” says Searle. “It would be easy to develop pristine farmland in South County. But it’s important to be able to come into the Valley neighborhood — a neighborhood we want to serve — where all the infrastructure is in place: a transportation system and utilities and looking over a beautiful river. It’s all about smart growth.”

 

The term “brownfields” was coined in 1992 to describe an old problem: abandoned industrial and commercial properties plagued by real or perceived environmental contamination. Heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, oil and solvents lurking in the soil and groundwater are major redevelopment obstacles in the Northeast and especially in Rhode Island, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. More than 2,000 brownfields sites have been reported to the state DEM, but the true total is unknown. 

Providence city officials, for example, must grapple with the environmental legacy of the Woonasquatucket corridor, its oldest and once-thriving industrial area, as it pursues a balance of new housing, cultural, commercial, recreational, industrial and retail development. 

“The river itself is considered impaired waters. Copper, mercury, dioxins: All sorts of nasty things over time have leached into the Woonasquatucket,” says the city Planning Department’s Associate Director of Special Projects Martina Haggerty. “There are more than fifty acres of land in the corridor that are vacant or abandoned or underutilized. About sixty-five properties are registered brownfields, and these are just the ones they know about.” 

Next month, the state will ask voters for the third time since 2014 to approve brownfields remediation and economic development funding as part of the $48 million Green Economy bond referendum. To date, the state DEM has distributed $7.4 million to thirty-three projects in twelve communities for property cleanups and redevelopment. The program has not been audited, but the grantees have reported that the money leveraged more than $630 million in other investments, and created about 5,000 jobs.

One of the first recipients was the Westerly Education Center, a higher education and skills training facility on Friendship Street adjacent to the town’s train station. The public-private partnership, which includes the Royce Family Fund, Electric Boat and the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI), received $712,000 in state brownfields money to cap the site. The Center, with classrooms, computer and science labs and meeting space, hosts job training and college courses offered by the Rhode Island School of Design, the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College and CCRI.

 “It was once part of the old railyard,” says Center Director Amy Grzybowski. “Now it’s an airy building and you can feel the vibe. It’s exciting work.”

State officials tout the program as an unqualified success. 

“It takes financial assistance to move the ball forward,” says Terry Gray, DEM’s assistant director for air, waste and compliance. “We try to close that gap to get property back to neutral, so that investment comes. It creates jobs and tax revenue and urban renewal.”

For about a quarter of a century, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been the primary source of government funding for brownfields assessment and remediation. The EPA has favored comprehensive projects “that would benefit the community economically, culturally or improve access to natural resources, and the more the project connected to other [community benefits] the better it fared,” says Curt Spalding, former EPA administrator for the New England region and now a professor at Brown University. “There are more projects than money available. It’s highly competitive.”

Rhode Island entities have been adept grant applicants, cadging nearly $43 million in federal brownfields support since 1994. Nonetheless, says DEM’s Gray, the federal programs are limited to state, tribal, local governments and nonprofits and, historically, the EPA took a broad view of the liability.

“It’s impossible to tell when the contamination really happened,” Gray says. “But, in the federal system, anyone who operated on the site at any time is considered a responsible party. And that’s when the banks got into trouble, because when they foreclosed on a property, they took ownership and became a responsible party. Now they are a deep pocket, and an easy target. It really crushed lending in the very early 1990s on commercial property.”

In many cases, says environmental lawyer Mike Donegan, the cost of a cleanup exceeded the value of the contaminated property. It was cheaper for a family-owned business to let an old mill property lie fallow. Potential buyers and their lenders looked elsewhere. 

“The term ‘brownfields’ used to demonize properties that had been previously developed,” Donegan says. “If a parcel in a downtown area might have risk associated with it due to contamination, why would a developer want that, as opposed to building on a greenfield?”

In 1995, the state passed a series of laws to establish the legal liabilities for brownfields cleanup, to provide a structure for liability relief for developers and to add cleanup standards consistent with the site’s planned reuse. In 2014, the state inaugurated the brownfields fund and opened the eligibility criteria to commercial applicants. 

The combination jumpstarted commercial development in areas where, previously, only the hardiest of developers would venture. And, along with historic tax credits, the fund has been a critical component of rehabilitating historic properties, says GrowSmartRI Executive Director Scott Wolf.

“I can quote you chapter and verse of all the mill rehab projects that wouldn’t have been successfully completed if federal or state brownfields site remediation money hadn’t been available,” he says. 

Environmental consultant John Chambers of Fuss and O’Neill says remediating brownfields has become just another uncontroversial part of site preparation.

“Almost everything we redevelop in urban areas is a brownfield, and if it’s handled right it’s safe,” he says. “There are more sophisticated techniques to remediate the nasty contaminated sites, but the vast majority of brownfields are less challenging legacy sites. Arts complexes, schools, daycare centers: You can do almost everything on a brownfield safely.” 

Since 1995, about 800 brownfields sites have been cleaned up with assistance from DEM and its partners. One can stand in the center of 498 Kinsley Avenue and spy, to the north, American Locomotive Works, now commercial office space and apartments, and the WaterFire Arts Center — both recipients of state cleanup money. Replacing a wire factory with an organization devoted to organic produce seems less irony than progress.

Ellen Liberman is an award-winning  journalist who has commented on politics and reported on government affairs for more than two decades.

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