According to the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, a brownfield is a property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant. Today in the United States (US), there lies an important debate over how the reinvestment of these polluted areas should be carried out. For instance, there is a dispute over whether these brownfields should be used for renewable energy or affordable housing. The issue is one of immediate concern to many environmental activists and specialists throughout the country. Though there is a very high demand for affordable housing in city areas, renewable energy is necessary if the world is going to help cleanse the atmosphere and save its environment. Investing financial resources in the conversion of brownfields to bioenergy would greatly reduce the risk of fossil fuels becoming too expensive and too environmentally damaging to retrieve, while at the same time, provide a substantial amount of energy for residential areas. Brownfields in the United States have been an issue for a surprisingly long time. They have caused deaths, diseases, and defects.
These misfortunes have come as a result of the smallest incident or occurrence within the vicinity of a brownfield. The pollution-filled areas of land were first recognized as issues in 1977 when a spark from a welder’s torch ignited a large chemical waste treatment facility in Bridgeport, New Jersey. The explosion killed six people and hospitalized 35. A year later, President Carter declared a state of emergency at Love Canal, New York. This was a result of a sudden increase in rashes, miscarriages, and birth defects. This state of emergency drew a lot of attention to brownfields and the fact that they are a major issue. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez crashed into the Bligh Reef and caused nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil to spill into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. At the end of the cleanup, only 10 percent of the total oil spilled was cleaned up. There were over 250,000 wildlife deaths. In a study done by the Wolfson Research Institute, areas with a large or high number of brownfields have a 15 percent increase in ill health, and a 14 percent increase in limiting long term illness. These statistics are in comparison to areas with little to no brownfields. The most common forms of brownfields are landfills.
Landfills are well-engineered and managed facilities for the disposal of solid waste.The first actions taken to eliminate and cleanup brownfields were taken in 1976 with the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The law gave the EPA the ability to assert control over any toxic area posing a threat of “unreasonable risk of injury.” In 1980, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund). Its purpose was to establish a system for emergency response, analyzation and investigation, site cleanup, and liability. The significance of this law was that it made current and past owners liable for any harm that might come to the environment or humans. In 1982, the EPA established the Hazard Ranking System (HRS). This system was created to determine the severity of toxic threats, and their potential effect on people and the environment. This system is essential to the decision of whether or not to place affordable housing on a particular area of land. In 2002, an amendment was passed to the Superfund Act. President Bush signed into law the Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act which increased response programs, and most importantly, clarified brownfield liability. This law said that if an owner was following certain guidelines to improving their property, then they would not be penalized for the damage that their property may be causing. There are many reasons as to why renewable energy should be the focus of brownfield redevelopment.
There are also numerous reasons as to why affordable housing simply should not be placed on renovated brownfield sites. Many may consider the most appealing aspect of renewable energy to be the potential it has for energy production. According to a renewable and sustainable energy review by Elsevier, 11 percent of the United States’ mainland is made up of marginal land which has the potential for redevelopment. Of this land, electricity, heat, solar, wind, and hydropower are all possible sources of energy for brownfields, all of which are capable of producing significant amounts of energy. As provided by the Elsevier study, “it is estimated that about 4.5 PWh of electricity could be produced from PV on marginal lands in the conterminous United States, 4 PWh from Concentrated Solar Power (CSP), 2.7 PWh from wind, 1.9 PWh from biomass, 11 PWh from mini-hydropower systems, 8.8 PWh from hydrothermal geothermal, and 7.3 PWh from landfill gas.” To put things in perspective, one must understand what installed capacity and capacity factor are. Installed capacity is the maximum intended output of energy from a facility. Capacity factor is the average power generated, divided by the rated peak power. If one takes 8,760, which is the number of hours in a year, and multiplies that by the capacity factor and half a megawatt, then one can determine how many megawatts per hour a source can produce. Wind facilities are normally used in large areas with open land due to the size of turbines. Smaller turbines can however be effectively used in more urban areas.
Despite lower energy productivity, they can be placed on rooftops which make them useful for brownfield sites with buildings. The energy is typically used for whatever is taking place on that site. Large turbines on the other hand, produce over one hundred kilowatts of energy. Often times, one large turbine will suffice for a large area of land, as well as a small community of energy consumers. In terms of solar energy, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), nearly all of the US has enough sunlight for PV systems to be effective. Solar panels can be placed just about anywhere. Rooftops, parking meters and poles, and even the ground. Biomass energy converts the energy potential from once living organisms into useable electricity. This is typically effective in brownfields where there is contaminated water, landfills, etc. At these sites, there is typically a gas emission from the contaminated waste. The gas produced can also be absorbed and turned into electricity through gas turbines or fuel cells. According to the EPA, there have been 55 renewable energy site installations in the US. These projects represent over 180 megawatts of installed capacity for our country. The EPA also estimates that since 2008, their brownfield program has generated 48,238 jobs and 11.3 billion dollars.
Despite there being multiple sources of evidence for the placement of renewable energy on brownfield sites, many people simply do not care. A poll of 779 New Jersey residents found that only 14 percent of respondents were willing to stay on the land. The article states that the majority of them were either a part of the lower class or young. One condition that most of the residents had was that they needed to be properly informed of the health risks of the site. Well, the opposing argument to that in favor of renewable energy is as mentioned before, affordable housing. Though only 14 percent of the people asked said they would live on a former brownfield area, most of these people were lower-middle to lower class, the demographic most likely to live in affordable housing. If the people for whom affordable housing is designed are fine with the land it is put on well then, what’s the problem? The fault in this belief however, is that there is a long term liability risk for site developers. But if residents are informed of the sites health risks as mentioned earlier, if something happens the owner likely will not be sued. Another reason that affordable housing is a popular choice is that most brownfields are in low income areas.
The people living in these low income areas argue that it is deteriorating an already poor community visually and economically.According to Mr. Charles Howland EPA’s regional representative for the Mid-Atlantic, 60% of the largest US businesses have set public climate and energy goals to increase their use of renewable energy. In 2013, President Obama declared that all federal agencies obtain ten percent of their yearly electricity needs from renewable resources by the year 2015, and 20 percent by 2020. Maryland requires that at least six percent of the electricity consumed by state owned facilities must come from green energy sources. Twenty-nine states and DC have enacted projects such as these, where it is mandatory that the state’s electricity suppliers get a percentage of their energy from renewable sources. Many may argue that the use of brownfields for affordable housing is the most reasonable choice to make. However, this is also the most risky. Brownfields pose multiple health risks not only to people, but to the environment as well. Therefore, placing affordable housing on brownfields does not seem like an ideal conclusion. Yes, there are benefits to affordable housing, but as mentioned before, there are major drawbacks. As for the renewable energy sources, there are no economic or health repercussions. In fact, there are no drawbacks at all. So why not choose the option that only yields positive outcomes. As the concern over global warming and environmental preservation grows, it is imperative that a solution be found .Renewable energy is that solution, and there is no better place to get it started than on a brownfield. Not only will it save our resources, but it will save our money as well, something that everyone claims to be short of in this day in age.