For several generations, amid the boom of industrialization during much of the 20th century, the United States did a poor job of picking up after itself.
Environmental policy has made great strides since then, particularly over the past 50 years or so. But Americans still are paying the bill for the ecological sins of the past.
That was brought to mind with a recent Columbian article about Terminal 5 and Berth 17 at the Port of Vancouver. As reporter Sarah Wolf writes, the sites “were once part of an aluminum smelter. Alcoa produced aluminum for aircraft during World War II before eventually selling the facility to another operator. The smelter closed for good in 2000, and the port bought the land several years later. The property has been cleaned up and incrementally improved since the port took ownership of it.”
The long-ago existence of an aluminum smelter left behind contamination that earned the site a designation as a “brownfield.” That indicates a property where redevelopment might be complicated by pollutants or the potential for pollutants, a common leftover from heavy industry.
Those leftovers are difficult and costly to remove. In addition, they prevent or delay development, hampering economic progress.
As the state Department of Ecology explains: “Brownfields are abandoned or underutilized properties that may have environmental contamination. Brownfields are common in communities of all sizes — they may be old gas stations, dry cleaners, industrial facilities, smelters, or former agricultural land.
“Negative perceptions of brownfields, along with potential environmental liability concerns, can complicate a community’s redevelopment plans. Local governments encounter brownfields as they plan to revitalize downtowns, make improvements to infrastructure, and redevelop old properties to meet community needs.”
Adding to the difficulty: Companies that spread the contaminants often are distant memories. They provided local jobs and extracted profits for decades, then left behind unusable land and a mess for taxpayers to clean up.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed by President Joe Biden in 2021, included funding to “help turn brownfield sites across the nation into hubs of economic growth and job creation,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In May 2022, the EPA announced grants totaling $254 million to 265 communities for brownfield cleanup.
According to the state Department of Ecology, six brownfield sites in Clark County are in various stages of cleanup after receiving public funding. They range from a dry cleaner in Vancouver to a school bus barn in Ridgefield to a former log yard in Washougal. Cleaning up the sites allows for new development and, in the process, increases nearby property values.
In the case of the Port of Vancouver, residential neighbors are not an issue; it sits in an industrial area. But progress made at Terminal 5 makes it possible for port tenants who create economic activity that benefits the entire region. As one port executive said: “That’s kind of part of our business — taking those brownfield sites and bringing them back to beneficial use for the community and for economic development.”
The process is slow — and costly. And it serves as an example of the importance of environmental regulations that help prevent contamination in the first place.
Because while the United States is getting better at cleaning up its messes, it also has learned that it less expensive to avoid making a mess in the first place.