September 23, 2012

Wasted Places: Brownfields stories from our collaborators

Wasted Places is a collaborative investigation by six nonprofit newsrooms into federal and state programs designed to clean up and redevelop polluted tracts known as brownfields. The project was coordinated by the Investigative News Network, and reported and written by the Connecticut Health Investigative Team, City Limits, Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and INN.

National coverage

National story Slow, underfunded EPA program falls short in toxic site cleanups Despite about $1.5 billion doled out by the Environmental Protection Agency over 19 years, hundreds of thousands of abandoned and polluted properties known as “brownfields” continue to mar communities across the country. The shortcomings are due to limited funds, a lack of federal oversight, endless waits for approvals and dense bureaucratic processes that make it difficult for poor and sparsely populated neighborhoods to compete against larger and middle-class communities that have the means to figure them out. This story was published by INNNBCNews.com and the Investigative Reporting Workshop, among other sites.


National map Browse the 17,000 sites that have received federal brownfields funding for assessing contamination. Produced by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Regional stories

Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism Recession worsens brownfields backlog in Wisconsin While the state has made some progress in the past two decades, a “startling” number of plant closings during the recent recession has created “an entirely new generation of brownfields,” according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.


Connecticut Health I-Team Toxic sites: Hazardous, hard to develop Nearly every Connecticut community is laced with sites tainted by contaminants like lead, mercury, asbestos, PCBs, or petroleum. These sites often wait years to get cleanup funding, and Connecticut delegates most of its authority to private engineers who are rarely audited in full.


City Limits A tale of two brownfields Even as a New York City program for cleaning up contaminated sites shows promise, two tainted areas in Brooklyn reflect different challenges that remediation can face – like pricetags and politics.


IowaWatch Iowa cities, towns miss opportunities when cleaning contaminated land Iowa cities and counties are not tapping into programs that would pay the costs of cleaning up these blighted, brownfield areas. Some city council members and others in local government leadership do not even know the programs exist — and those who do are often daunted by the costs and paperwork of the application.


New England Center for Investigative Reporting Toxic sites threaten health, environment in Mass. More than $100 million of taxpayer money has been spent over the last two decades to clean up a toxic mix of chemicals that has contaminated land, tainted waterways and imperiled the health of residents throughout Massachusetts. Yet, despite that costly undertaking, thousands of contaminated sites remain.

  • Rebecca Katers

    Excellent investigative series … Thank you!

    We need much more public oversight and input on this issue. Too many decisions about brownfields are handled behind closed doors, at high risk of political interference.

    Please continue digging into the details of how sites are “cleaned up.” I guarantee you’ll find more than dirt.

    Who sets the STANDARDS for these clean-ups? Who gets appointed to the DNR’s “Technical Advisory Committees” and “Citizen Advisory Committees” during the crucial rule-making processes? How and why are members chosen. Who chooses them? Are the appointees all advocates for strong measures that fully protect the health of all Wisconsin residents from toxic exposures, or will they protect only 90% of us … or 70% of us?

    How are decisions made on those DNR committees … by majority rule (when the majority of appointees represent the interests to be regulated), or by rigged “consensus” (when the token environmentalist or citizen member is ignored and members in the “middle” feel forced to drastically compromise to achieve anything at all)?

    How often do politicians in Wisconsin’s Legislature and the Governor’s Office follow technical recommendations of DNR experts or the toxicologists in the state’s health department? How often do state lawmakers ignore credible scientific advice … compromising Wisconsin’s public health protection standards (or blocking standards entirely) in order to appease the lawyers, lobbyists and hired-gun consultants sent by private individuals and special interests?

    How often are campaign contributions linked to DNR standard-setting and specific brownfield site decisions?

    In 1995, when Tommy Thompson gutted the power of the citizen-based Natural Resources Board, he turned the DNR Secretary into a political pawn of the Governor. Politics always influenced DNR decisions to some extent; but since 1995, the DNR has been dominated by powerful special interests.

    Also, if Republicans prevail in their appeal and state employees lose union protection, few DNR employees will feel safe saying or doing ANYTHING significant without political approval. If the Republicans succeed, DNR employees will keep their jobs only if they don’t make waves. Any science-based DNR employee recommendations to strengthen toxic chemical standards or require better clean-ups will be smothered and buried at birth, “remediated” more thoroughly than any brownfield.

    I sincerely doubt that public health has been fully and permanently protected at most Wisconsin brownfield “clean-ups.” In too many cases, toxic chemicals are just covered temporarily with inadequate layers of soil or pavement … or only SOME of it is removed, leaving sites with risky chemical residues defined as “safe enough” by Wisconsin politicians.

    Hundreds of dangerous Wisconsin brownfields have been identified, studied, and discussed for DECADES without action, because the public is unaware and too many politicians are invertebrates, too self-serving to give the DNR and state health departments the legal tools and staff needed to REQUIRE immediate clean-ups.

    Public health protection is not a political priority in Wisconsin.