Rural brownfields 'quiet disasters'

BY SUSAN KIM | WASHINGTON, DC | April 26, 2000

WASHINGTON, DC (April 26, 2000) -- In rural America, brownfields are

a quiet disaster that could be affecting thousands of people.

A brownfield is defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

(EPA) as abandoned or underutilized properties where expansion or

redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental


"An unused gas station can be considered a brownfield," said Laurie

Thompson, director of programs for the National Association of

Development Organizations (NADO) Research Foundation. "So can an old

cellophane factory, or a pants factory, an old mill site, dry

cleaner, or warehouse."

Brownfields may be more obvious in city locations but are

increasingly prevalent in rural America, she said. "Think about how

many times people drive through rural America and see an old gas


A report entitled Reclaiming Rural America's Brownfields has been

released by the EPA and the National Association of Development

Organizations (NADO) Research Foundation. The study, undertaken by

NADO specialists, defines obstacles to the cleanup and redevelopment

and rural brownfields across the nation. NADO's recommendations -

which don't necessarily represent the EPA's views -- include

increasing awareness of the positive effects of rural brownfield

redevelopment. The biggest obstacles are lack of funds, technical

assistance, and equipment.

"There is simply a lack of awareness and a lack of funding to do the

cleanup," said Thompson.

Unfortunately for rural regions, often a brownfield is created

simultaneously when a community loses its only employer -- a plant or

a mill, said Karen Homolac, an economic development specialist with

the California Trade and Commerce Agency. "People are already

tightening up financially, then they lose their morale, and the whole

crisis just circles in on itself."

Farms and agriculture are no longer the prevailing industries in

rural America. In 1997, farming provided less than seven percent of

non-metropolitan jobs. For example, in the unincorporated California

town of North Fork, population 3,500, a lumber mill dominated the

small town, covering some 140 acres. But the mill closed in 1994 when

timber supplies decreased. The site is still being redeveloped but

lead agencies still lack the funding to complete the job.

The study suggests that redeveloping rural brownfields can boost

local economies, protect the environment, preserve open space, and

revitalize the neighborhood. The study also found that potential

health impacts are not yet determinable but more studies are planned

to address that issue, said Thompson.

While there is an abundance of information about urban brownfields,

there is a dearth of data about rural brownfields, the study showed.

The U.S. Government Accounting Office reports 450,000 brownfields in

the United States. It is not known how many are located in rural

America. Some 82 million Americans - or one-third of the total U.S.

population -- live in small metropolitan and rural areas, according

to the 1990 Census. Approximately one in four Americans live in rural

areas. Rural America contains more than 80 percent of the land area

in the United States.

The EPA's definition of a brownfield includes "perceived

contamination" as well as actual contamination, since people's

perceptions can halt the sale or reuse of a property as much as real

contamination, said Sven-Erik Kaiser, spokesperson for the EPA's

brownfields program. "As many as one third of brownfield have no real


But Karen Corrigan of the Southeast Idaho Council of Governments

(SICOG) warned that residents' perception often indicate mild to

severe contamination that should be checked out. "Just about any

place you've had industry, you're going to have some type of

contamination, particularly if the property was owned before people

were careful about how they disposed of paint cans," she said.

SICOG helped oversee the cleanup of a five-acre site it had leased to

a former motorcycle helmet manufacturer. The manufacturer, which had

employed up to 100 people, went out business. Site assessments cost

$80,000 while the actual cleanup cost about $50,000. More than 30

barrels, both aboveground and below, had to be sampled to determine

if they contained any hazardous substances.

In the end, the materials pulled out of the site did not contain

anything extremely toxic. However, the perceptions of toxicity due to

the solvents used in motorcycle helmet manufacturing caused SICOG to

be concerned enough to initiate the cleanup.

Once the site was cleaned up, SICOG sold the property to a telephone

company, meeting its ultimate goal of retaining jobs in the area.

Corrigan pointed out that even rural areas or small businesses with

only a few employees should be concerned about brownfields and their

causes. "For example, how do you dispose of things like white-out, or

pens and markers that don't work? These days, more large employers

are paying attention to how they dispose of things, but really it's

something we could all pay some attention to."

The report recommends that a national working group on rural brownfields be established to promote networking and information exchange. The current

methods used to redevelop brownfields in urban areas won't

automatically transfer to rural areas, said Kaiser.

"The report confirmed that many tools we're using work better in big

cities," he said.

NADO plans to keep offering information and training - through

workshops, conferences, and publications -- about brownfields

identification, cleanup, and redevelopment. Information can also be

found at NADO's Web


Posted April 26, 2000

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