It doesn’t make sense to keep funding toxic cleanup efforts while simultaneously loosening regulations.
When I first visited the Capewell Horsenail Factory in Hartford in early 2014, I saw an all-too-familiar scene—a hulking, contaminated carcass of bygone industrial might. Built in 1905 and designed by a bridge-builder, it was one of the first fireproof buildings in Connecticut, with a brick parapet that looms over the low-slung Coltsville neighborhood that surrounds it. The factory had closed in the mid-1980s. A tree had grown up through the inside of the building, its limbs piercing the shattered windows that looked out onto the nearby homes. Inside, feral animals and more than a few people had taken up residence over the years.
The building was still structurally sound. But the site bore the toxic residue of its decades of industrial use. Asbestos and lead paint caked the building, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) spilled by the metals-finishing work at the factory lingered within the concrete floors and under the building’s foundation. The heavy contamination rendered it nearly impossible to repurpose and consigned it to rot for decades.
If you visit the site now, you’ll find 72 new units of luxury loft-style apartment housing that is helping to spur the revitalization of Connecticut’s struggling capital city, where the median household income hovers just below $29,000.
The Capewell Factory was a brownfield, one of hundreds of thousands of vacant and abandoned factories, mills, warehouses and other industrial sites across the country with a legacy of contamination left behind by long-gone companies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there are nearly 450,000 brownfields nationwide. In Connecticut, where I oversee a brownfield redevelopment program within the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD), there are least 1,000 sites like this where redevelopment is challenged by contamination.
As Capewell demonstrates, many of these sites can be put back to productive reuse, with targeted public investments. Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy has put nearly $200 million of state funding into more than 150 brownfield redevelopment projects across the state.
But the state can’t deal with its brownfields by itself: In many of these projects, EPA plays a critical role as the regulator of cleanups and, in some cases, as a source of critical funding. At Capewell, DECD provided a $3.5 million low-interest loan to finance the environmental remediation that enabled private capital to finance the housing development. In parallel, EPA Region 1 staff worked closely with the developer to approve an innovative strategy for addressing the PCB contamination in the building’s floors that could not be removed without demolishing the entire structure, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
That kind of partnership now faces an existential threat. President Donald Trump’s proposed budget reduces EPA enforcement staffing by more than 40 percent, in effect gutting existing regulations, and identifies the brownfield program as one of many that could be cut or significantly downsized. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has publicly pushed back on some elements of the Trump budget, singling out brownfields as one of a handful of his own programs he intends to try to rescue; he also recently called the brownfield program a “tremendous success” at a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
But Pruitt’s budget priorities would focus narrowly on cleanups while simultaneously weakening enforcement and regulations—an incoherent strategy that could create more brownfields, and put taxpayers on the hook to bail out future polluters. It is the environmental policy equivalent of paying for liposuction and simultaneously cancelling your gym membership. It will make a bad problem worse.
To understand why, we need to remember how cities found themselves saddled with the challenge of brownfields in the first place. The term was first coined in the early 1990s, and the EPA’s brownfield program, which provides grants and loans to both assess and remediate properties, was formally established in 1995. Most brownfields are not the result of spills or accidents—they were created in the ordinary course of business, before polluters were compelled to stop polluting by federal and state regulations. Prior to the enactment of modern environmental laws and regulations, practices such as dumping toxic waste into rivers and lakes and, in the case of Capewell, careless handling of chemical solvents, were both common and legal. These practices only stopped because the public demanded it and lawmakers took action.
Brownfields represent market failures, where the cost of cleaning up the mistakes of the past swamps the returns that can be earned today, and where the responsible party that made the mess is no longer on the scene. As a result, some sites have lain idle for decades, fueling community blight and contributing nothing to the local economy. This challenge is particularly acute in struggling smaller cities where deindustrialization has had its most pernicious effects—places like the Connecticut cities of Hartford, Waterbury, New Haven, and Bridgeport.
Waterbury, known as Brass City, was once the home to a booming munitions industry and other metals finishing businesses. This was the home of the infamous “Radium Girls,” who were killed or suffered horrific health effects from the radium-laced paint they used to print clock faces and other products. Today these industries are long gone, but the land and buildings remain—dozens of sites in Waterbury alone, often vacant and decaying for decades. Absent public investment in a cleanup, these sites will remain drags on local economies.
State and local leaders such as Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel have recognized the importance of brownfield redevelopment to their efforts to revitalize their cities. Former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg led New York City in becoming the first municipality in the country to administer its own cleanup program, a program that has continued to be a priority for Mayor Bill de Blasio. But federal support is critical: More than 25,000 sites have received federal funding since the brownfield program’s inception in the mid-1990s.
Historically, the EPA’s brownfield program has enjoyed support on both sides of the aisle. In 2015, and again in 2017, Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) and Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) sponsored bipartisan legislation to expand funding for brownfields. And in March of this year, Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty (D-CT) introduced a bill with Congressman John Katko (R-NY) that would make important improvements to the EPA’s programs. But the fate of those programs is now in grave doubt. Even if Pruitt succeeds in rescuing cleanup funding, that’s not a long-term solution—it has to be part of a continuum of policies designed to prevent a return to the industrial practices that created the problem in the first place. Implicit in the bargain of taxpayers bearing the costs of contamination created by the private sector is that the public ought to expect regulations to prevent the creation of new brownfields. A policy regime of lax regulation and ample cleanup funding when things go wrong creates a significant moral hazard, with privatized profits and socialized losses.
Today, we’re not making a lot of horseshoe nails in America, and many of the most intensive polluting activities have relocated to countries with more lax regulations. But there is no shortage of environmental hazards that could be created if EPA enforcement wanes. Chemical storage facilities, fuel depots, smaller-scale metal manufacturing factories, agribusiness factories, dry cleaners, auto repair shops, oil and gas exploration sites, and power plants are just some of the places that could become tomorrow’s brownfields.
I hope Congress has the good sense to protect funding for brownfield redevelopment, but doing so without a commitment to maintaining and enforcing reasonable environmental regulations would be both fiscally and morally irresponsible. We’d just be opening the door to the creation of a new generation of problems for our children to solve.