Shaking Off the Rust: Life After Brownfields

So how do you fix the Rust Belt, or at least one city at a time? Shore up the tax base? Develop new industry? Reclaim brownfields?

Each one seems dependent on the one before, and in Greenville, Pa., it seems it really is, all tied to one 34-acre hole in the center of town.

The EPA defines brownfields, or at least tries to, as property “complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.” Which, in practical terms often means that it is some former industrial site that someone poured so many pollutants into that it is now too dangerous and more often too expensive to clean the land to use. They are the side effects, the STDs of industry.

Greenville’s great brownfield, as alluded to before, is a 34-acre crater in the center of town. That area may not be relatively great in size in a larger municipality, but the entire area of the Borough of Greenville is about 3,200 acres, making Greenville’s demilitarized zone roughly 1 percent of its total area. Adding even more insult to it, at the end of last century, the site employed 2,000 people or roughly one-third of the borough’s population, and had been a fruitful employer for nearly a century prior. (You can see it here. It’s a huge hole. It looks cursed, like they couldn’t or forgot to build here.)

DEP studies have found xylenes and a handful of other “hazardous substances” ending in -ene in the soil, leaving the site only a fenced-in, choked-down field (you don’t need to mow this grass) punctuated by only patches of broken cement and rebar, all within sight of Main Street and a block over from the borough’s commercial corridor. Sure DEP has ordered the site’s last occupier, Trinity Industries, to clean up the site, but that was more than five years ago and still no shovel has turned.

So it begs the question, how do you flip a brownfield, clean it up, get it back on the tax roles, get it close to how productive it was before.

For the EPA, there is a shining example, or at least one shining example in Pa. That’s Bethlehem Steel.

In Bethlehem, Pa., since 1850, shutting down in 1995, they pulled 375 tons of lead and arsenic poisoned soil out of the ground. Now it’s home to the $26.6 million Pennsylvania ArtsQuest Center which includes the Pa. Sands Casino and Resort, and plans include pools, ice rinks, movie theaters, a Smithsonian museum.

To be fair, being an hour and half from Philly and not much farther from metropolitan New York City, has probably given them a leg up. Although mere yards from a primary road, Greenville’s brownfield is about 15 miles to any interstate (Interstate 79 or 80.)

So, a casino complex isn’t likely, but what has been pitched is a community auction like the one in Rogers, Ohio, which its site says hosts more than 1,600 vendors, or similar models from Hartville, Ohio, or Shipshewana, Ind. Anything, any amount of commerce would be an improvement, but nothing has yet to be done.

Some accuse Trinity for dragging its feet, other DEP for not pushing the clean-up, and others, state law for having no teeth.

With that said, if Bethlehem is a success story, it still took them, according to the Patriot Ledger, a dozen years to clean it up.

Maybe other places have more help.

In the auto states, there’s the Mayor Automotive Coalition which represents municipalities from Texas to Wisconsin (not so Rust Belty) to Michigan and Pa.’s neighbor, Ohio. Christopher Weber writes about how they’ve banded together, come up with the Auto Brownfields Revitalization Act, that comes tied with it $375 million to assess brownfields and another $625 million for redevelopment.

Greenville does have local officials leaning on other politicians and Task Force Trinity North, but it sounds like, on Bethlehem’s timeline, we’re only halfway there.

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