Two of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) best-known programs are the Brownfields and Superfund cleanups. Brownfields and Superfund sites typically require massive and costly cleanup and remediation to remove contamination and return them to usable condition.
Cleanup of brownfields and Superfund sites allows the government to address public health concerns and broader environmental concerns. Remediation of these sites that are generally off-limits to economic development often helps create jobs and other economic impacts. This type of work has been gaining more and more attention since the passage of President Biden’s Infrastructure Jobs Act in November 2021. The bill invests $21 billion to clean up Brownfields and Superfund sites, among other related projects.
Key points to remember
- Brownfields and Superfund sites are areas in the United States designated by the EPA as environmentally hazardous due to pollution, contaminants, or similar issues.
- Programs to clean up these sites and make them fit for reuse facilitate jobs and economic benefits both directly and indirectly.
- The EPA has identified more than 600 Superfund sites that have been repurposed and now support more than 227,000 jobs and nearly 10,000 businesses.
- Major infrastructure legislation passed in November 2021 will earmark about $21 billion for Superfund and brownfield redevelopment, as well as similar projects.
Economic Benefits of Brownfield Redevelopment and Superfund
Redevelopment of Superfund and Brownfields sites can result in a variety of economic benefits. As these areas are cleared and redeveloped, they are used in multiple ways: for sole proprietorships, manufacturing facilities, residences, and more. In the case of both programs, the reduction of negative environmental elements leads to long-term economic benefits by reducing risks to public health. Below, we take a closer look at the potential economic impact of the Brownfields and Superfund sites separately.
Brownfields Impact Program
The EPA says the Brownfields program creates jobs and other economic benefits, such as land redevelopment so new lots don’t have to be paved or otherwise developed. The agency said every dollar spent is multiplied infinitely in the form of business and job creation. Project appraisal, cleanup and cooperative agreements on revolving loan funds stimulate job creation. This project and the jobs it creates are facilitated in large part by EPA Brownfields Grants and Funding.
In its last fiscal year, which was marred by pandemic-induced lockdowns and slowing economic activity, the EPA fell short of some of its Brownfield goals. It has cleaned 62 of the planned 140 properties and made 313 ready for reuse, out of the planned 684, by March 1, 2022.
Brownfields tend to be centrally located in metropolitan areas and are often already connected to existing infrastructure. By making these sites usable, developers can limit infrastructure costs, while simultaneously minimizing additional negative environmental impact. Residents living on or near brownfields have been shown to drive less, on average, than other metro residents. Overall, these benefits contribute to a trend of between 5% and 15.2% of average residential property values increasing within 1.29 miles of brownfield sites.
Impact of the Superfund program
Superfund sites are the worst hazardous waste sites in the country. While a primary goal of Superfund cleanup is to mitigate these environmental and health issues, some Superfund sites are reusable after decontamination. In this way, vacant or underutilized sites can potentially support businesses or other economic activities.
For 2020, the EPA has identified 632 Superfund sites for reuse with available economic data. These sites have supported over 9,900 businesses with total annual sales of over $63 billion. These companies employed more than 227,000 employees and earned $16.3 billion in revenue. Each of these numbers has increased dramatically in the last decade alone, with the number of Superfund sites reused with available data more than quadrupling.
In addition to the potential economic benefits of cleaning up Superfund and Brownfields sites, it is also important to consider the downsides of leaving these areas untouched. As mentioned above, there are many negative public health effects attributable to these areas when the government leaves them uncleaned. However, due to the varied and complex nature of these sites, their contaminants, and the short- and long-term health impacts, it is difficult to calculate these costs.
There are other economic downsides to leaving brownfields and superfunds unaddressed. The EPA says site cleanup deters vandalism, trespassing, and other property damage. These sites may also cause further environmental degradation in other areas, extending the impact beyond the Superfund or Brownfields sites themselves identified. In this way, the negative effects of brownfields and uncleaned Superfund sites go beyond just the lost potential of redeveloped businesses as described above.
What are Brownfields and Superfund Sites?
The EPA designates areas as brownfields or Superfund sites due to environmental hazards such as pollution, contaminants, or other related issues.
What are the disadvantages of not treating brownfields and Superfund sites?
Abandoned or untreated wastelands and Superfund sites lead to environmental degradation of surrounding areas. They contribute to negative impacts on the public health of local residents. These sites can attract vandals and intruders.
What are the economic benefits of cleaning up these sites?
The process of cleaning up brownfields and Superfund sites creates jobs. It also facilitates the development of new properties and can contribute to the general well-being of local businesses.
Brownfields and Superfund sites are not only hazardous to the environment and dangerous to public health, but they are also areas of significant missed economic potential. Cleaning up these sites and making them reusable enables commercial, residential and other developments with billions of dollars in potential economic benefits for communities.