Brownfields: How We’re Cleaning Up the Northeast

There are an estimated 450,000 brownfield sites across the country — contaminated properties, often industrial, where hazardous substances used in production in the past have been left behind. A site may have housed a gun factory, a warehouse, a fertilizer plant, a landfill, a dry cleaner — whatever industry left the premises, the contamination stayed, leaving the surrounding area tainted with heavy metals such as lead and arsenic, or other organic or inorganic waste.

Regulating an Industrial Legacy

In the 19th and well into the 20th centuries, it was an acceptable practice to simply contain residual processing waste in an onsite holding pool or disposal area, where it could leach uncontrolled for years, contaminating the ground and water. That all changed in 1976 with the Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA). The law established strict guidelines for how to manage hazardous and non-hazardous solid waste and gave the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) full authority over hazardous waste from cradle to grave — including generation, transportation, treatment, storage and disposal.

Before a site can be slated for redevelopment or reuse, it has to conform to RCRA and other standards, including decades of additional guidelines. The EPA’s federal Superfund program, created in 1980, designates superfund sites across the country. Often the location of complex or widespread contamination, they are eligible for federal Superfund financing as well a mix of other public and private funding sources. The Northeast is packed with such sites, with New Jersey having the highest concentration — 115 active Superfund sites as of this year. Massachusetts has 34 of its own.

While every state has its own laws regarding hazardous waste management, RCRA is the bedrock regulation — a state or local law can only be tougher, not more lax. Simply put, there is no getting around the need for responsible, legal cleanup. But remediation technology has made tremendous strides — and most Superfund sites can be successfully cleaned up for development or reuse. Soil Solutions HMR (SS-HMR) has been at the forefront of this evolution for decades, innovating new approaches and materials that can turn around a brownfield in less time and at less cost.

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A Predominance of Lead

Soil Solutions HMR’s specialty is remediating inorganic contaminants throughout sites in the Northeast, from Superfund sites to smaller projects. It’s more likely we’re dealing with lead than any other contaminant. Lead was the common denominator for countless applications from our industrial past, readily used for everything from pipes to gasoline to paint. Today, however, its hazards to humans and the environment are serious and well-known: high levels of lead exposure damage the major organs and stall the neurological and brain development in children. And lead can get into water, plants, and creatures, ruining not only ecosystems, but the food supply as well.

From a remediation standpoint, lead and other heavy metals are far easier to locate and trace than other contaminants, as they’re not as mobile. Usually, they won’t wind up in ground water and they can’t flow into the bedrock. That means the contaminated area could be capped — as in treated and covered, or remediated, removed and sent to safe storage. If feasible, we recommend remediation treatments that are conducted on-site, as this approach greatly reduces the cost and complexities of transporting and storing hazardous waste.

Joining Public and Private

Many brownfield projects today are partnerships between public and private interests. It’s often up to a private industry to develop the site and transform it back into viable, taxable property, adding value and income for the public good. Or the cleanup may be focused on returning a site to its natural state to provide a new park or pristine recreation area. Regardless of the purpose, there are countless benefits to reclaiming a brownfield, not the least of which is that the hazardous material contaminating the area is contained so it won’t do any more harm.

The key is finding the source and spread of contamination on each given property, and determining the right approach for the best outcome. With a number of stakeholders involved, from the proposed developer to the community, for instance, it’s also important to make sure everyone is informed enough to come to a collective decision on the treatment strategy.

Tailored Treatments

Usually, the fact-finding process starts with soil samples taken from various points and levels within the brownfield: every site proposed for any kind of development or use has to have soil samples gathered. With brownfields, the land may already be listed on the inventories of hazardous waste sites kept by the EPA, state and regional regulators. Usually, the question isn’t if the site can be developed, but how to first render it non-hazardous so it can be.

Once the samples come into our labs, we run them through a range of tests for treatability. In our experience, a solution that “worked perfectly on another site” is not enough. We need to make sure it’s been well-tested on this one. Soil treatment is never one-size-fits-all: every concentration and composition will be different.

As we treat the soil samples with variations on our proprietary chemicals and materials, we’re looking for optimal results depending on the proposed use of the site. A site being transformed into a playground will have different needs than one designated for a warehouse; a site on a shoreline, such as the Weymouth Neck project, needs to be remediated to different standards than one slated to become a blacktop parking lot. But we never skimp on treatment approaches. While we work in strict adherence to EPA standards as well as any state, regional, local and municipal regulations, our results often surpass the standards required, and that’s intentional. We have our own benchmarks to meet — and that gives our clients confidence.

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A Plan in Place

When we come into a community or a developer’s meeting, we’ll provide a range of proposals to suit everyone’s needs. Decision-making on the right treatment approach can take time and involve many perspectives. We’ve done everything from providing testimonials for hearings to ushering the developer and the community through navigating the regulations and paperwork. It can take a lot of time and effort to put a plan in place all are comfortable with.

Then, once the treatment approach and amount of materials needed are determined, our team can wear many hats. It depends on the scope of that particular brownfield project. We can take on the role of technology provider and provide guidance to the engineering and construction crews, or we can run the whole project. We may use existing machinery or bring in our own. We’ll engineer a safety plan and coordinate with everyone on site. And we have experience doing all of it.

Whatever the project is, we know what needs to be done before remediation starts. We don’t wait for surprises or allow for uncertainty. There’s nothing left unaddressed as we get started. Whether you’re a developer with a commercial project or a community planning a public one, whether the brownfield in question is a small plot or extensive acreage, that means you can get to work with confidence. The EPA’s approach has mandated safe treatment and handling of hazardous materials from end to end — and that’s how we treat every project.

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