The Economic Impact of Brownfields and Superfund Cleanup Sites

Two of the best-known U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) programs are the Brownfields and Superfund cleanups. Brownfields and Superfund sites typically require massive, costly cleanup and rehabilitation in order to remove contamination and return them to a usable state.

Cleaning up Brownfields and Superfund sites permits the government to address public health and broader environmental concerns. Remediation of these sites that are typically off-limits to economic development often helps create jobs and other economic impacts. This kind of work is gaining attention since President Biden's Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in November 2021. The bill invests $21 billion to clean up Brownfields and Superfund sites, among other related projects.

Key Takeaways

  • Brownfields and Superfund sites are areas in the U.S. designated by the EPA as environmentally hazardous due to pollution, contaminants, or similar issues.
  • Programs cleaning up these sites and making them suitable for reuse facilitate jobs and economic benefits both directly and indirectly.
  • The EPA has identified over 600 Superfund sites that have been reused and now support more than 227,000 jobs and nearly 10,000 businesses.
  • The major infrastructure legislation passed in November 2021 will dedicate roughly $21 billion to Superfund and Brownfields redevelopment, as well as similar projects.

Economic Benefits of Brownfields and Superfund Redevelopment

Redeveloping Superfund and Brownfields sites may lead to a variety of economic benefits. As these areas are cleaned and redeveloped, they are used in a multitude of ways—for individual businesses, manufacturing facilities, residences, and more. In the case of both programs, reducing negative environmental elements leads to long-term economic benefits by reducing public health risks. Below, we take a closer look at the potential economic impact of Brownfields and Superfund sites separately.

Impact of Brownfields Program

The EPA says the Brownfields Program creates jobs and other economic benefits, such as redeveloping land so that new lots don't have to be paved over or otherwise developed. The agency says that every dollar it spends is multiplied over and over in the form of business and job creation. Project assessment, cleanup, and revolving loan fund cooperative agreements spark job creation. This project and the jobs it creates are facilitated in large part by the EPA's Brownfields grants and funding.

In its last fiscal year, which was marked by pandemic-induced lockdowns and a slowdown in economic activity, the EPA fell short of some of its Brownfields goals. It cleaned up 62 of an expected 140 properties, and made 313 ready for reuse out of an expected 684, as of March 1, 2022.

Brownfields sites tend to be located centrally in metro areas and are often already connected to existing infrastructure. By making these sites suitable for use, developers can limit costs related to infrastructure while simultaneously minimizing additional negative environmental impact. On average, residents living on or near Brownfields sites drive less than other metro residents do. Altogether, these benefits contribute to a tendency for the average residential property value to increase between 5% and 15.2% within 1.29 miles of Brownfields sites.

Impact of Superfund Program

Superfund sites constitute the nation's worst hazardous waste sites. Though a primary goal of Superfund cleanup is to mitigate these environmental and health concerns, some Superfund sites are reusable following decontamination. In this way, vacant or underused sites may eventually support business or other economic activity.

For 2020, the EPA identified 632 Superfund sites in reuse with available economic data. These sites supported over 9,900 businesses with total annual sales of more than $63 billion. These businesses employed over 227,000 employees earning $16.3 billion in income. Each of these figures has increased dramatically in just the past decade, as the number of Superfund sites in reuse with available data has more than quadrupled.

Other Considerations

Besides the potential economic benefits of cleaning up Superfund and Brownfields sites, it is also important to consider the downsides of leaving these areas untouched. As mentioned above, there are many negative public health effects attributable to these areas when the government leaves them uncleaned. However, due to the varied and complex nature of these sites, their contaminants, and short- and long-term health impacts, it is difficult to calculate these costs.

There are other economic downsides to leaving Brownfields and Superfunds unaddressed. The EPA indicates that site cleanup deters vandalism, trespassing, and further property damage. These sites can also lead to further environmental degradation in other areas, extending the impact beyond the identified Superfund or Brownfields sites themselves. In these ways, the negative effects of uncleaned Brownfields and Superfund sites go beyond just the lost potential of redeveloped businesses as described above.

What Are Brownfields and Superfund Sites?

The EPA designates areas as Brownfields or Superfund sites because of environmental hazards such as pollution, contaminants, or other related issues.

What Are the Downsides of Leaving Brownfields and Superfund Sites Unaddressed?

Abandoned or unaddressed Brownfields and Superfund sites lead to the environmental degradation of surrounding areas. They contribute to negative public health impacts for nearby residents. These sites can draw vandals and trespassers.

What Are the Economic Benefits of Cleaning Up These Sites?

The process of cleaning up Brownfields and Superfund sites creates jobs. It also facilitates the development of new properties and can contribute to the overall well-being of local businesses.

The Bottom Line

Brownfields and Superfund sites are not only environmentally hazardous and dangerous to public health, but they are also areas of significant missed economic potential. Cleaning up these sites and making them reusable allows for business, residential, and other development that may offer communities billions of dollars in potential economic benefits.

Article Sources
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  2. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Overview of EPA's Brownfields Program."

  3. Library of Congress. “H.R.3684 – Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.”

  4. The White House. "President Biden's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law."

  5. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Returning Superfund Sites to Productive Use.”

  6. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Superfund Redevelopment Program Reuse Definition.”

  7. Minnesota Brownfields. “Benefits of Brownfield Redevelopment in Minnesota.” Page 5 and 7.

  8. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Part Two - Chapter Five: Estimating the Economic Benefits of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.” Page 6.

  9. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Brownfields Program Environmental and Economic Benefits."

  10. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Brownfields Program Accomplishments and Benefits."

  11. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Redevelopment Economics at Superfund Sites."

  12. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "The Superfund Program: Protecting Healthy Communities, Advancing Environmental Protection."

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