The Trump administration has been taking steps, some quietly, some very publicly, to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). One such quiet step was the administration’s proposal earlier this year to speed up agency efforts to remediate and redevelop former industrial and other hazardous sites known as Superfund sites and brownfields.
On its face, the proposal might seem like a bright spot. But EPA officials actually envision using public funds to clean up private lands owned by developers like President Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner to prepare these sites for massive redevelopment projects.
It’s an old but deceptive approach, cleaning up a handful of highly visible, hazardous sites and creating the appearance that the EPA is keeping the public safe, while leaving the vast majority of potentially toxic sites untouched, their risk to the public unaddressed.
Indeed, America’s cities are built on top of former industrial sites that have largely gone without regulation and remediation, and the continual “churn” of urban land use and redevelopment means there is little recorded or institutional knowledge about these sites’ locations.
A prime example is the Northern Liberties neighborhood of Philadelphia, an old manufacturing area now booming with bistros, art galleries, and boutiques rather than machine shops and factories. A two-acre community garden and playground dubbed “Liberty Lands” now sits atop a reclaimed Superfund site once occupied by Burk Brothers Tannery. But attention and remediation has not extended to the 200 or so other relic industrial sites that operated in the area after the 1950s: They won’t be found in the EPA’s hazardous sites databases, because they either closed prior to reporting requirements or remained small enough to avoid them.
The nature of risk containment today fails to address the historical legacies of hazardous land uses, especially as cities are again growing rapidly and gentrification hides what came before and whatever sources of contamination that may still remain behind.
Ever since the federal government began requiring voluntary reporting of industrial toxic releases in the late 1980s, environmental officials have limited this reporting requirement to the largest, most obvious polluters, the active sites most people know or at least suspect to be a problem. Later, when related efforts extended to include polluted sites no longer in operation, federal action again took a worst-first strategy.
Government agencies now typically identify and clean up only the most visibly polluted sites of relic industry, such as the two vast brownfields in the Dumbo and Gowanus neighborhoods in Brooklyn purchased by Jared Kushner, often with liability-free agreements for subsequent redevelopment.
Meaningful action to address the hazards facing America’s city dwellers will require looking beyond the most obvious sites of concern and asking how many hazardous sites are out there in American cities. Our book, Sites Unseen: Uncovering Hidden Hazards in American Cities begins to tackle this question. We used industry reports and manufacturing directories stretching back to the 1950s to build a historical database of sites occupied by industries known to dump hazardous waste.
We identified these types of sites in four cities, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, New Orleans, and Portland, Oregon, and found that, despite being very different cities, they all shared a common feature and fate: More than 90 percent of the thousands and thousands of potentially hazardous sites we uncovered went unreported in government databases and were given no regulatory attention.
The passage of time has rendered such legacy sites less visible as they are converted into less risky uses such as playgrounds, loft apartments ,and coffee shops and as older residents move on and demographic changes in neighborhoods erase public memory of earlier hazards. As these processes unfold, the problem of contamination branches out from specific sites into an ever-expanding landscape of environmental risks.
Until Americans acknowledge these dynamics, the scale of environmental hazards and toxic sites in cities will not be fully recognized and addressed in a meaningful way. Our study has mapped out this problem in four large cities and offers a DIY guide for others to do the same in their own cities and towns.
Local, state, and federal stakeholders must take the next step and work together to understand and mitigate risks to all urban residents. The sooner and more fully we recognize and address that America’s industrial past means that few cities have escaped contamination, the healthier and more sustainable those places will become. Large-scale redevelopment projects like those undertaken by the Trumps and Kushners of the world are just the tip of the iceberg.