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A brownfield is an area of land that “may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It estimates that there are more than 450,000 brownfields in the United States.
From illegal dumping areas to retired mining operations, brownfields aren’t ideal for redevelopment. What could we do with our wasteland sites other than fence them off forever?
For contaminated lands, the first goal is to make sure they do no further harm. If the remnants of a contaminant are still a potential threat to seep into the water table or blow into another location, there may be local, state and federal requirements to jump into action.
Some sites may be cleaned up enough to clear the brownfield status. However, some brownfield areas are best isolated, such as mine tailing ponds. The most toxic sites sometimes receive EPA Superfund status.
As a distinction, an EPA-designated Superfund site is a particularly bad brownfield. Superfund sites provide a significant threat to humans and the environment, which puts them into a higher priority category for corrective actions or protections. Radioactive sites or asbestos-producing facilities are likely candidates for this status.
Where are these Superfund sites? There is at least one in all 50 states. More than 1,300 are on the EPA Superfund National Priorities List. And more than 400 have been cleaned up enough to be removed from the list.
Fortune described photographer David T. Hanson’s quest to photograph Superfund sites in 1985. He chose aerial photography because Superfund sites require that you stay a minimum of 200 feet above the ground for safety.
Arguably, one of the worst Superfund sites in the United States was Rocky Flats, near Boulder, Colorado. This was a site where plutonium cores were manufactured for nuclear weapons in the 1980s. The EPA and FBI raided the factory in 1989, and eventually charged the operators an $18.5 million fine for negligence. Local homeowners received settlements for much larger amounts in the following years when radioactivity was measured on their properties.
Hanson was required to stay a full 2,000 feet above this site to photograph because the contamination was so dangerous. Today, all the buildings have been cleared and tons of waste has been removed, but locals are still unsure this land is safe to use or develop.
From hazardous site to renewable energy hub
There is a potential win for this wasteland around the corner. The National Renewable Energy Labs has its Wind Technology Center just across the road from Rocky Flats. I used to drive by Rocky Flats on the way to visit friends outside Boulder. It is one of the windiest stretches of highway I’ve experienced, making it an excellent wind energy research site. Maybe there is a near future in which Rocky Flats is covered with wind power turbines, too.
The site of a 2011 disaster is taking a renewable path. Japan’s Fukushima was the scene of a tsunami-triggered nuclear core meltdown.
The Japan Times describes what is happening there now: “Seven years after the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, Fukushima Prefecture remains committed to becoming an international center for renewable-energy research and a domestic pioneer by meeting 100 percent of its energy demand via renewables by 2040.”
Japan is making Fukushima a renewable energy hub. In 2017, they had already reached a capacity of 1.4 gigawatts of renewables, a similar size to one large nuclear reactor. Solar, wind and biomass are all part of this land reuse.
Perhaps the most famous nuclear disaster site is Chernobyl, Ukraine. In 2018, near the containment dome of the reactor site, Chernobyl turned a different page. It opened a 3,800-panel solar plant. “It’s not just another solar power plant,” Evhen Variagin, the chief executive of Solar Chernobyl LLC, told Reuters reporters. “It’s [tough] to underestimate the symbolism of this particular project.”
About 1,000 square miles of the exclusion area surround the former nuclear plant. Hopefully, this trend continues and sets an example for how to reclaim the wastelands.
Ukrainian authorities won’t allow people to live on the Chernobyl site for another 24,000 years, according to phys.org. The transformation of an international disaster site into a functional part of the modern renewable energy landscape is a triumph. There is plenty of room for additional healing and rebuilding here.
If you could travel back in time to the days when nuclear power was seen as the inevitable future of energy at Rocky Flats, Fukushima and Chernobyl, you probably would have been laughed off the grounds if you had suggested that solar and wind would be better initial uses of the land. Through the tragedies of nuclear disasters, we have the obligation to reassess and evaluate the risk/reward balance of nonrenewable energy sources.
Fifty years ago, we didn’t have the renewable capabilities we have now. Additionally, we didn’t have enough large-scale examples of solar or wind to convince ourselves that renewables could stand toe-to-toe with nuclear. We have the case studies, research and economies of scale now to move into a new era of power plants, where renewables are seen as the norm, not the unproven offshoot.
Given that a storm or human mismanagement can’t make a solar or wind plant crash and poison the occupants and lands surrounding the site for tens of thousands of years, there is cause to prescribe renewables as the specification.
At a minimum, renewables may be the best way to heal the scars of the 450,000 U.S. brownfield sites. If remediation isn’t a realistic option to rehabilitate a site, we should plan to paint all the brownfields with renewables. When we revive our wastelands, not with condos but with clean energy farms, we start to justify our collective mistakes in these mistreated lands.
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