Saturday, January 23, 2010

Brownfields and Urban Agriculture - Assessing The Challenges (Part 2)

This is the second part of a transcript of an interview I conducted last week with Clark Henry of the Portland Brownfield Program. In this interview, we discussed the prevalence of brownfields (areas of land polluted by commercial or industrial activity) in urban environments, and the implications for urban agriculture and food gardening. Today's post contains the remainder of that interview, in which solutions to brownfields are discussed. For the sake of continuity, I have also included all of the transcription from last week's post. My questions are in bold type, and Mr. Henry's answers are in normal type.

People talk about adapting to Peak Oil, economic collapse and resource constraints...and there are all sorts of responses, including trying to make things work where we live. Food systems are a big part of this, including urban gardening and urban farming. But some have pointed out the pollution of the urban environment, including pollution of soil due to lead. Telling people, “Don't grow food in the city; it's too dangerous,” won't fly as people find that they can't afford to rely on our present food systems. Yet the issue of pollution is valid. Can you comment on the scope of the problem, starting with lead pollution?

Sure, and just to qualify my statements, I am not a scientist, but an urban planner. I've been working with this [Portland Brownfield Program] project for eight years, so I have developed some understanding of levels and pervasiveness of contaminants. My wife, however, is director of the Josiah Hill III Clinic, a community-based nonprofit organization that does blood lead level testing for pregnant women and children in lower income neighborhoods and among communities of color.

The #1 source of lead contamination in Portland is lead paint, from older construction and older houses. The problem of lead contamination grows more severe as one moves eastward across the United States and as one goes into older neighborhoods. Scraping and sanding paint, or chipping and flaking of paint is the source of soil contamination in the home environment. In commercial and industrial areas, shipbuilding and shipbreaking, bulk oil terminals, old gas stations and old storage sites for leaded gasoline are sources of lead contamination.

Lead is a background element in nature, and agencies like the EPA and HUD publish environmental lead level figures that, in their view, “do not pose a driving risk to human life.” However, they also say that there is no safe level of lead in the human body. And there are documented detrimental effects to small children up to the age of 7 from exposure to lead. The City and County Health Departments partner with the State to publish guidelines for lead exposure, and there is a “Lead Hotline” available to City residents.

What other contaminants are a concern (including organic contaminants like organic compounds from leaking underground tanks)?

Petroleum of all varieties – gasoline, heating oil, motor oil, diesel fuel, bulk oil, and so forth. Former gas stations occupy a large portion of America's commercial corridors, and they were usually situated on corners where people drive by. Many sites of these former stations show few or no signs of such previous use; yet when people look into the records for such sites, they discover that, “Oh, a gas station was here!”

Modern gas stations operate under rigorous oversight by state regulators, but these older sites represent a mystery, an unquantifiable risk, and available databases don't do justice to this risk. Verifiable sites are maintained in two State (Oregon) Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) databases: the Leaky Underground Storage Tanks (LUSTS) database, and the Environmental Cleanup Site Inventory. Some of the sites on this list have been cleaned up and re-used. All of these sites are candidates for State involvement in assessment and/or clean-up.

There are two stages of State environmental assessment. First is the Phase 1 assessment in which a consultant determines the history of the site, using sources such as the County library, building records, the Polk Directories and the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps. (In the 1950's, the Sanborn Fire Insurance company made very detailed maps of underground tanks for underwriting purposes.) Also, the consultant will visit the site to do a visual inspection, where he may notice old concrete pump islands or old gas station structures or fill ports for underground tanks.

The Phase 2 assessment follows once the consultant has determined that a site is a former gas station or dry cleaners' facility or metal plating facility or so forth. Phase 2 consists of taking soil samples or groundwater samples, or taking samples of the contents of barrels if there are barrels on the site, or taking samples of the materials of any existing buildings or structures on the site.

Once the assessment is finished, the level and type of contamination is compared to the desired future use of the site. The DEQ is concerned with limiting exposure to contaminants. Thus, a site that meets regulatory approval isn't necessarily cleaned up, but is configured in a way that limits exposure – via placing a parking lot or building foundation on top of contaminated soil so that people are prevented from coming in contact with the bare soil. This is called an engineering control. Another form of control, called an institutional control, consists of placing restrictions on the title and permitted uses of the site.

So then, it is possible that there are sites that would be under institutional controls that forbid their use for urban agriculture?

Absolutely. Unless you worked through a new way of getting the site cleaned up. And the City is working with some groups who are researching how to make brownfields both safe and functional for urban agriculture, whether it's small-scale community gardens or something larger. We're working with a group called Groundwork Portland, which is just a year and a few months old. It's part of a network called Groundwork USA, whose mission is to identify brownfields within environmental justice communities, and to have them assessed and cleaned up and re-used in a way that reflects the surrounding community. Not necessarily to eyeball these sites for condominium development or Starbucks, but to make sure that they are doing something for the people who live there – by protecting their health first, and then by insuring that these sites are used in a way that meets the needs of the people around them.

Groundwork Portland has a board of directors whose members come from several local organizations: Organizing People, Activating Leaders (OPAL); the Oregon Tradeswomen; and the Oregon Sustainable Agriculture Land Trust (OSALT). The Oregon Tradeswomen provide training in hazardous waste handling for brownfield work. OSALT owns property for agricultural use and they are doing research on appropriate agricultural development of urban properties. There is a project on 8th and Emerson in NE Portland, the “Emerson Garden Project,” now being undertaken by OSALT, and it is a 4000 square foot lot that was donated by the County through foreclosure.

The Portland Brownfield Program tested the lot and found that there were really high lead levels in a couple of spots. We (Groundwork Portland, OSALT and the City) are now trying to clean up the soil using phytoremediation (decontamination via plants), in order to turn this lot into a community garden. OSALT will test native plants on this lot, to determine their phytoremedial qualities with lead, in order that we can turn this into a site for food production and education at the same time.

What are the available remediation strategies, starting from the most expensive strategies down to those that are within reach of communities and non-profits?

That's a good question, and the answer is not obvious. Soil removal is one option. But this is very expensive compared to trucking dirt to a regular landfill. Dirt at regular landfills is simply used as a cover. But contaminated dirt requires removal to a toxic waste landfill. Fortunately, there is such a landfill in eastern Oregon, but the cost of trucking dirt there is over $700 a ton, compared to $70 a ton for removal to a regular landfill. And a ton of dirt is not that bulky. So soil removal quickly becomes very expensive, not to mention the cost of finding virgin, clean dirt and trucking it in to your urban agriculture site.

Another strategy is groundwater treatment, but this is an ongoing process that may last several years, and it too is expensive. When dealing with petroleum products, oxygenation and breakdown of compounds using bacteria and/or mushrooms is sometimes used. But this requires continual monitoring. The big questions for bioremediation, and indeed for all remediation, are “How long will this take?”, “How much will this cost?”, and “Who will pay for this?” These are often unknown until one gets into a project. Those who undertake such projects therefore take on a significant risk. Private developers must take this risk on themselves, but communities and tax-exempt non-profits can get help.

The Portland Brownfield Program focuses most of its efforts on helping community-based revitalization efforts, and I think we've achieved some good successes. But we also help private markets figure out remediation, as even large private firms who specialize in brownfield redevelopment sometimes get in trouble.

As far as nonprofits, there's a group, Southeast Uplift, that owns a former gas station on southeast 57th and Division. This land was given to them by the U.S. Marshal. This site was known to have underground storage tanks that had leaked. We helped them deal with the environmental liability issues and obtain the resources to deal with regulatory requirements for dealing with the site's past use. Our approach was straightforward – “dig it up and haul it away.” Fortunately, when we started digging out the tanks, we found very little contamination. But a site with identical usage and identical tanks might have had monstrous contamination – you just doesn't know until you start digging. We can test all we want, but the reality is that we drill a series of holes spaced a certain distance apart, and we make assumptions about what lies between those holes. If we find contamination, we will drill more holes until we don't find any more. This helps us determine the zone to be cleaned up. But the testing is expensive, and it is not fast. We can make educated assumptions about what we hope to find, and then have a plan B – a healthy contingency. Private developers have the luxury of having a large investment pool for cleaning up land for large projects, such as the Pearl District and South Waterfront. Things get tighter as the project size shrinks, though there are State and Federal grants available to tax-exempt organizations and nonprofits.

It sounds like there really needs to be a partnership with city governments in order to promote urban agriculture. The extent of urban pollution is fairly widespread. Are you saying then that people should not rush in blindly and grow vegetables in any bare patch of land?

Yes, that's a fair assumption. But it depends on what you're growing – does your tomato plant take lead out of the soil and store it in the fruit? It's questionable. Look at the literature to see what contaminants plants actually take up. The more serious threat comes not from eating the vegetables, but from working the soil – digging, planting, then bringing contaminated soil into your home.

The National Brownfield Conference was recently held in New Orleans. My co-worker Jen was there, and spoke at an urban agriculture session. There was also a woman named Anne Carroll of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who is working with city groups to help accurately communicate the risk – there really aren't a lot of regulatory standards that people can follow to determine what's safe; most of it is perception.

At that Conference, one researcher from the University of Washington said, “There's a very scientific approach to this; there's very little risk, so why address it? We haven't seen plants take up contaminants; all you're doing by applying this stigma to areas of land is stopping people from growing food. There's no risk; just go ahead and do it.” To me such a statement sends up a red flag – because people don't necessarily respond well to purely scientific reasoning. Even if that reasoning is communicated clearly, people don't always respond well. For instance, if you were told, “That soil is safe for you to garden in so long as you and your children aren't consuming more than 18 percent of your annual broccoli intake from that plot,” how would you feel? Perception of risk – perception of contamination is everything. Perception that a site is too dangerous to use may cause it to lie fallow, unused for anything- along with the perception that any assessment or remediation is too costly to undertake.

This is why partnership with a city government or other group that understands these issues can help in reusing sites. This is why we have been working with OSALT on the 8th and Emerson site, and why we have been working with Anne Carroll on accurately communicating the risk, and what to do to manage the risk. Not everyone who wants to start a community garden has a few hundred thousand dollars to remove the existing soil and bring in verified clean, composted new soil – that's unrealistic. So what's the alternative? To not use land? To use only the most pristine land? The vast majority of this world exists right in the middle, and if we want to use urban land for agricultural uses, we will be walking with some risk. That's okay, as long as we understand the risk and we take reasonable steps to limit it.

There are some obvious no-no's – you don't plant directly in extremely contaminated soil, for instance. And composting has been shown to bind contaminants in soil so that they are not mobile and can't be absorbed by plants. But some of this is subjective. And one size doesn't fit all. What's needed is an arsenal of many tools to deal with contamination in many situations.

One question is “What does sustainable cleanup really mean?” Does sustainable brownfield redevelopment consist of digging up contaminated soil and hauling it to a landfill? That just makes it someone else's problem. These landfills don't remain landfills forever. We're already dealing with the problem of closed landfills, and the big voids they leave in the urban environment. Landfills are big. Once they get closed, normally nothing happens on them. Will we try technologies and products that clean soil and groundwater? Do these products really do what they're supposed to do? Or do they actually make the contaminants more toxic?

Are there other cities throughout the U.S. and the world whose city governments are working to reclaim brownfield sites in their city limits for use in urban agriculture?

Yeah, absolutely. Philadelphia has been receiving national attention for their “Philadelphia Green” efforts. There's a group in Milwaukee, Wisconsin – I feel bad because I can't remember the man's name – but there's a gentleman who has done a tremendous job with aquaculture and urban agriculture, and he's doing it in a way that's educating tons of people, while generating enough funds to support itself; it's economically viable. There's also the Groundwork USA network. New York City is also looking at this as far as urban gardening, and they recently launched a very ambitious Brownfield Revitalization office.

Germany has a very interesting “Interim Use” philosophy. If a site is not being used, the government asks, “What can we use this for?” They don't have the same “property rights” gusto found in the USA, so the German government has a lot more statutory authority to put sites to use when their owners leave them fenced off and contaminated. Urban agriculture is one of the uses Germany has looked at for these sites, particularly in Leipzig.

In Indianapolis, my counterpart is Christopher Harrell, and he's looking at this as well. We're definitely not unique, but we like to think we're doing good work.

So here we are and someone wakes up to the insecurity of our economy and our industrial food system, and as he thinks of the need to start building local economic systems and systems of food production, he looks out his apartment window at the vacant lot across the street. Where does this person start?

Talk to the property owner if you're thinking of using some vacant land. Then, do your research on the site's history. In Portland, the Polk Directories are a good resource. Then, if you find that the site has a history that might have generated contamination, do some testing. Call the Portland Brownfield program. Also, talk to neighbors who know the history of the site.

But should you find that the site is contaminated, what do you do with that knowledge? You can compare your findings against the DEQ standards for agricultural use. Also, HUD and the City of Portland's Building Department have guidelines. But you have to be able in the end to look your neighbor in the eye and say, “Yes, this site is safe for use.”

* * *

Debrief: Mr. Henry provided some very useful information, which I am sure is greatly appreciated. Three things stand out: first, that pollution of the urban environment is a widespread and serious problem; secondly, that functioning in the urban environment therefore involves intelligently managing the risk from urban pollution; and thirdly, that providing sustainable and viable local economic systems – especially, local systems of food production – in urban areas will require us to learn to live differently. If we care about relocalizing our food, we will have to stop polluting our land, and we will have to stop supporting those businesses and activities of the present official economy that continue to ruin our cities. I know there are cities in China and on the African continent that are learning this the hard way.

One other note: The City of Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is hosting its “Urban Growth Bounty 2010” series of classes on urban agriculture and self-sufficiency. There will be 82 classes, covering topics such as urban farming, keeping chickens and bees, food preservation, and cheesemaking. Those who live in Portland and who are interested can go to for class descriptions and online registration links.

Lastly, here are links to the organizations mentioned in this interview:


Anonymous said...

Thanks to the issues that Clark raised and the experiences of other communities cited in this article, we developed this fact sheet and posted it on the EPA Brownfields website. The URL is: for those who would like to know more.

Meg said...

The organisation he's referring to in Milwaukee is called Growing Power Inc. run by Will Allen. it can be visited at