From Brown to Green 

It's a myth that environmental laws are job killers. In fact, the East Bay is home to many cleaned-up toxic sites that are now spurring the economy.

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In urban California, this might be an understatement.

Moreover, had cleanup never occurred, Emeryville's residents would still be suffering from the health consequences. Their illnesses, in turn, would affect all of us, most directly because the state would be forced to dedicate public funds to cope with otherwise preventable public health problems, but also indirectly through lost economic activity due to sickness — the sorts of hidden, long-term costs Pellow has studied.

In 2009, Congresswoman Barbara Lee recognized the EPA's work in Emeryville as a "key component for community revitalization," noting that it allowed the East Bay to "turn problem properties into community assets."

Colangelo's group, the National Brownfield Association, estimates that there are more than one million brownfields nationwide, undervaluing and preventing use of as much as $2 trillion in real estate.

If Emeryville is the poster child for what's possible on a city-wide level (even if it resulted in the construction of widely derided big box stores and expensive condos), then Oakland might best be understood as the poster child for what's left to be done. Oakland is pockmarked with brownfield sites that reduce the availability of safe, affordable housing; prevent new companies from moving in; and harm the health of local residents. Contaminated land is a major but under-acknowledged reason for why the city's economy has struggled in recent decades.

"Oakland, an older city with a history of industrial activity, felt the effects of pollution and abandonment more than most," observed Gomez of the city's Environmental Protection & Compliance department. "Frequently, the economics of the situation mean that brownfields lay vacant or underutilized for years — eyesores that become magnets for myriad problems."

California's Department of Toxic Substances Control has "certified" 57 different brownfield sites in Oakland, meaning the agency has extensively monitored for contaminants and cleaned up soil and groundwater to safe levels in these locations. But according to the agency's own records, there are another 25 "active" cleanups still unfinished. As a result, these properties are not available for residential and commercial uses, and thus devalue parcels nearby. Besides these works in progress, there are another thirty properties in Oakland that require environmental assessments and cleanup, but have yet to be moved on.

One active remediation site in Oakland is the old Harris Dry Cleaners on Martin Luther King Jr. Way and 28th Street. This three-story brick building on a corner lot is well known among locals for the graffiti murals wrapped around its entranceway. There's a school on the block behind it, and a community garden across the street. It's the kind of building in exactly the sort of central location you'd think someone would have found a new, innovative use for — maybe shops, live/work lofts, or an events center. But beneath the building, the soil and groundwater are contaminated with tetrachloroethylene (also called PCE), an organic solvent widely used in dry cleaning. PCE is carcinogenic and suspected of causing Parkinson's disease. It can be easily inhaled or absorbed through skin contact. If burned at a high enough temperature, PCE can turn into a deadly gas called phosgene, which was used as a chemical warfare agent in World War I.

Last year, DTSC completed its investigation of Harris Dry Cleaners, noting high levels of PCE, but it hasn't been cleaned up yet. For now the building drags down real estate prices nearby, and threatens the health of local residents. Funding and a sense of urgency may be lacking partly because no private developer has targeted the site for redevelopment. This is one of the inequities of how toxic dumps are cleaned — if a developer isn't interested in the site, then local government agencies are less likely to vie for the scarce funds needed to remediate it.

Professor Nancy Green Leigh of the Georgia Institute of Technology calls these kinds of sites "low-to-no market value brownfields." Oakland and other mostly non-white, low-income communities in the East Bay are full of these problem sites. According to Green Leigh, the stumbling block is that "the current practice of many brownfield redevelopment projects is to select only the most marketable sites for remediation and redevelopment, essentially perpetuating the age-old 'creaming' process. Private and public developers' avoidance of the lowest market value parcels typically excludes disadvantaged neighborhoods from programs aimed at redeveloping brownfields and creates the potential for widening existing inequalities between better-off and worse-off neighborhoods."

Unlike Emeryville's real estate, which was seized on by land speculators two decades ago, much of West and East Oakland's polluted property remains toxic and in need of remediation. Cleanup funding therefore has a smaller constituency of advocates with political influence. Yet even with fewer private sector instigators of cleanup, Oakland is sprinkled with examples of economic rejuvenation via environmental remediation.

"Many of Oakland's redevelopment success stories over the past ten years have taken place on former brownfields," Gomez pointed out. "Most are residential developments that have taken advantage of pre-existing commercial neighborhoods and mass transit infrastructure. New residents have less need to spend time behind the wheel, thereby reducing air pollution, and their presence in the neighborhood has motivated new businesses to move in."

All this new activity, said Gomez, "creates jobs and a more vibrant, safer place to live and work." And for Gomez and his colleagues in the city's Environmental Services Division, the economic revitalization of Oakland is second only to the primacy of protecting people's health. The city has received more than $4 million since 1995 to investigate toxic sites, so at least the scale of the problem is becoming known.

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