National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) celebrates the 14th annual Environmental Education Week this week, April 23rd – 29th, 2018. NEEF partners with a wide range of organizations to inspire educational learning and encourage stewardship of our essential resources: land, air, and water. Lone Star Legal Aid’s Environmental Justice team participates this year by sharing information about brownfields, a type of land commonly found in our most vulnerable communities.
Urban environments are usually made up of a mix of “old” land, or brownfields, and “new” land, also referred to as greenfields. A “brownfield” is land which was developed in the past but is no longer in use. Some examples are abandoned factories, former businesses like dry cleaners or gas stations, or closed municipal landfills. Depending on the previous uses of this land, brownfields may have varying levels of contamination. Toxic chemicals like solvents from dry cleaners can persist for decades, even leeching into groundwater. In contrast, a “greenfield” is a plot of land being considered for development which has not been previously developed, or if at all, was used for agriculture. Greenfields are often found in areas threatened by urban expansion. Examples are forests, coastal prairies, or wetland areas like bayou greenways.
Brownfields play an important part in our understanding of Environmental Justice. In fact, the Environmental Justice movement first began after non-violent protests took place when a hazardous landfill threatened a predominantly African American community in Warren County, North Carolina in the 1980’s. Over many decades across the U.S., minority communities have had to bear the majority of the burden from these toxic landfills. Statistically, race is the biggest predictor of whether or not you live near a hazardous waste facility.
Located in the Sunnyside neighborhood of Houston, the Holmes Road Landfill is a brownfield of historical significance. Opened by the City of Houston as an unregulated landfill in 1937, the 300-acre Holmes Road Dump was purposely located in this historically African American community by the City. Thirty years later, in 1967, an 11-year old boy named Victor George drowned in a water-filled hole at the landfill, which was unfenced, and still operating as an unregulated dump. The child’s death spurred protests in Sunnyside and at TSU, becoming a lightning rod for Civil Rights in Houston. It was only after this incident that the City eventually closed the Holmes Road Landfill. To this day, like many minority communities in the U.S., the Sunnyside community has been left with the legacy of these contaminated brownfields as a painful reminder of inequality that persists.
Efforts to clean up brownfields are finally beginning to take place across the U.S. Sites are being remediated as redevelopment efforts are made for new businesses, parks, golf courses, and other uses. When brownfields are cleaned up, neighborhoods are better in many ways. More information on brownfield cleanups can be found here.