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The Difference Between Superfund Sites and Brownfields

The Difference Between Superfund Sites and Brownfields

A site polluted with harmful materials necessitates intervention for the well-being of the environment and its inhabitants. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) categorizes such polluted sites into two types: "Superfund" and "Brownfield".


A Superfund site is a location that has been heavily contaminated by hazardous materials, such as chemical waste or toxic substances. These sites are designated as "Superfund" if the federal government is involved or plans to be involved in the cleanup efforts. Many of these sites are listed on the National Priorities List (NPL). Currently, there are over 500 Superfund NPL sites that are either being reused or are already in a protective state for future reuse.


On the other hand, Brownfield sites refer to properties that may have potential environmental contaminants but can be reused or redeveloped with proper cleanup and management. These sites are often located in urban areas and may have been previously used for commercial or industrial purposes. 

  • Unlike Superfund sites, brownfields receive major attention from state and tribal response programs, with a focus on cleaning up and revitalizing these sites. State voluntary cleanup programs play a significant role in facilitating this process.


The Impact of Superfund and Brownfield Sites

Both Superfund and Brownfield sites require proper assessment, cleanup, and management to prevent further contamination of the environment. The EPA employs various methods depending on the severity of pollution, including excavation, containment, and natural processes such as bioremediation. 


Proper management of polluted sites is crucial for environmental conservation and the protection of public health. The contaminated land can have adverse effects on human health, including respiratory diseases, neurological disorders, and even cancer. Polluted sites can also harm wildlife and disrupt ecosystems.


The Superfund Redevelopment Initiative (SRI) program provides valuable guidance, tools, and services to support communities in revitalizing these Superfund sites. These resources assist in overcoming obstacles to reuse, including comprehensive assessments and planning.


Facilities regulated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) for treatment, storage, and disposal might also require cleanup if they have released substances into the environment. These sites, known as "RCRA brownfields," often encounter delays in reuse or redevelopment due to concerns related to contamination, liability, and RCRA requirements.


It is essential to note that contaminated sites are not limited to industrial areas. They can also be found in residential neighborhoods, where hazardous waste may have been illegally dumped or leaked from underground storage tanks. Therefore, individuals must be aware of potential pollution sources and report any concerns to the appropriate authorities.


Restoring Superfund and Brownfield Sites

In recent years, there has been a significant focus on remediation and restoration of Superfund and Brownfield sites to improve the quality of the environment and protect public health. This has led to successful cleanup efforts and redevelopment of these areas for beneficial use, such as parks or housing developments. The EPA works with local communities and state agencies to ensure that the cleanup and restoration efforts are effective and sustainable.


Contamination from petroleum products or Superfund hazardous substances released from underground storage tanks can be found at underground storage tank (UST) sites. These sites require proper attention and remediation. Federal facility sites are properties owned or operated by the US Government, which may contain environmental contamination from unexploded ordnance, radioactive waste, or other hazardous substances.


In cases where Superfund or RCRA programs do not address the contamination issue, the responsibility often falls on the respective state cleanup programs. It's worth noting that state cleanup programs can vary significantly and may include state Superfund programs, state Brownfield programs, and other voluntary cleanup programs tailored to specific contaminated sites.


Local governments are critical in managing the cleanup of contaminated sites and Brownfields. They often initiate site assessments to identify potential contaminants and determine the extent of pollution. Once the assessment is complete, the local government can develop a remediation plan tailored to the specific needs of each site. 


This plan might involve the removal of contaminants, containment of hazardous materials, or using natural processes like bioremediation to degrade pollutants. Local governments can also seek funding from governmental grants, loans, or private investments to finance the cleanup efforts.


The Potential of Superfund and Brownfield Sites

Brownfields and Superfund sites, once cleaned, offer vast opportunities for repurposing. These lands can be converted into spaces that benefit communities and contribute to sustainable development. Possible ideas for repurposing Brownfields and Superfund sites include:

  • Converting the land into parks or recreation areas: Many communities lack access to green spaces where residents can exercise, relax, and connect with nature. Brownfields and Superfund sites can be transformed into beautiful public parks, playgrounds, sports fields, and other recreational facilities. This not only improves the quality of life for residents but also provides economic benefits through increased property values and tourism.

  • Building affordable housing: The shortage of affordable housing is a major issue in many cities and towns. Brownfields and Superfund sites can be redeveloped into affordable, mixed-income housing complexes. This not only helps address the housing crisis but also promotes diversity and social inclusion within communities.

  • Establishing community gardens and urban farming: With the rise of interest in sustainable living, converting brownfields and Superfund sites into community gardens or urban farms can provide fresh produce to local residents while promoting a sense of community and connection to nature. These sites can also serve as educational spaces for teaching about sustainable agriculture practices.

  • Creating commercial or industrial spaces: Brownfields and Superfund sites often have existing infrastructure, making them ideal locations for businesses to set up shop. These spaces can be repurposed into offices, retail stores, manufacturing plants, or other commercial/industrial facilities. This not only creates job opportunities but also contributes to economic growth in the community.

  • Developing renewable energy projects: The vast acreage of brownfields and Superfund sites can be utilized for renewable energy projects like solar or wind farms. These projects not only provide clean energy but also create jobs and stimulate economic development.


The redevelopment of these sites into renewable energy projects aligns with the global initiative towards a greener and more sustainable future. It reduces dependency on fossil fuels, cuts greenhouse gas emissions, and promotes energy independence. Hence, local governments, by actively participating in the cleanup and repurposing of contaminated sites, can positively impact their communities and contribute to larger environmental goals.


Coming Soon: Contamination risk scores will soon be available for every U.S. property using our LandApp tool:




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