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Mon August 27, 2012
Digging into Massachusetts' Brownfields
After spending more than $100 million to clean up contaminated land and water in Massachusetts, thousands of polluted sites remain. They're called "brownfields," and in some cases you'd barely know the damage. We visited one site in Roxbury to look for progress.
For this story WGBH Radio is partnering with the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit investigative reporting newsroom based at Boston University.
Click on the placemarks to find out more about each site.
View Ten Brownfields Fast-Tracked for Cleanup in a larger map
On the edge of Dudley Square in Roxbury sits a small, square parcel of land — less than an acre. It's not a field. It’s not brown. But it's called a brownfield. That's because it was once contaminated and hasn't been completely cleaned up. Neighbors like Carison Branch have mixed feelings. He doesn't seem to mind a grassy lot with a few flowers and the occasional butterfly, but he’s been waiting for years for it to become a housing development.
"It's just a vacant lot. It used to be real ugly around here but now they keep it clean. It looks better now," he said. "They're supposed to build a house there soon. People don't really go in there. What was there? Asbestos."
How it happened
Asbestos-covered building materials were piled in a heap in the lot several years ago. Teenagers in the neighborhood took note, and with the help of the organization Alternatives for Community and Environment sent samples to a lab.
"The owners, or the developers, were cited and had to remove all the stockpile. This and a number of other sites in the neighborhood were determined to have asbestos on them," said Gene Benson, a lawyer from the organization, who keeps an eye on brownfields in Roxbury. "Eventually all the asbestos was removed, soil was removed from the site, they put clean fill on the top and they put what was known as an Activity and Use Limitation on that said basically, look, this is a dangerous site, there are a lot of things this can't be used for like single-family housing, growing trees, growing food, things like that."
The lot is in limbo now, surrounded by a fence that's partially bent open. It's one of a cluster of brownfields in Roxbury and nearby Dorchester, areas that have much higher concentrations of brownfields than other parts of the state, according to government maps.
Why brownfields are concentrated in cities
Kerry Bowie is director of brownfields and environmental justice at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. “Brownfields are usually going to exist in places where there’s been manufacturing or post-industrial use that would probably map pretty closely to our urban areas,” Bowie said.
But there’s also the issue of real estate value and poverty. In 1993, new rules went into effect in Massachusetts that largely "privatized" the cleanup of contaminated sites. The approach required owners and developers to take more responsibility and to free up agency staff to concentrate on more pressing issues like hazardous waste sites and chemical spills. Under this system, most brownfields are investigated and cleaned up with little or no Mass DEP involvement besides testing and audits.
The state relies on funding from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Bowie said: “EPA has grants that they provide to municipalities, regional planning authorities, nonprofits to do assessment, cleanup, turning those properties around, bringing them back into productive use. It’s pretty much a mix of environmental cleanup meets economic development.”
A long way to go, especially in the city
Yet since 2007, out of 900 identified brownfield sites in Massachusetts, only 71 have received state grants for site assessment and cleanup. And only a handful of those have been remediated and redeveloped. That’s according to data supplied by the DEP. Data on brownfields is difficult to capture because brownfields are defined as any land with contamination or perceived contamination.
At the sight near Dudley Square, Benson said testing shows there’s no asbestos in the air, but it’s not safe for building yet.
“If this is going to be turned into housing, they’re going to have to clean it up again. So this would be much more expensive than just a regular site that didn’t have all the stuff in the ground. And that’s the problem with urban brownfields,” he said.
Environmental activists and residents will be keeping an eye on vacant lots and buildings across the state in the coming year, as the EPA just awarded Massachusetts $6.75 million for brownfield cleanup.