For residents of Clinton, N.Y., brownfields are a relatively unheard of problem. With access to vast tracks of farmland and clean air, area residents are hardly at a shortage of open space. Travel just 10 miles east to Utica or south to New York City, however, and the problem becomes immediately apparent. Vacant inner city lots formerly home to industrial and commercial infrastructure litter inner-city neighborhoods, often becoming so prevalent that they violate minimum open space regulations.
Unfortunately, dealing with these brownfields is not as simple as razing the vacant property and building over, because brownfields are usually contaminated with industrial and chemical waste. These plots of land often exist in a state of developmental limbo, as developers wish to sell the land but very few buyers are willing to take on the financial and legal risks associated with cleaning up an environmentally contaminated property.
Environmental studies major Melissa Mann ’13 hopes to help alleviate the growing problem of brownfields by conducting research with an organization that utilizes federal and state grants to clean up and redevelop these vacant plots of land. Much of this funding comes from the EPA-managed 1980 Superfund and the recently established New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) Brownfield Opportunity Areas Program (BOA). Mann has received an Levitt Summer Research Fellowship to work with the Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corps (SBIDC) to complete the first of the BOA’s three grant application steps. Her advisor is Assistant Professor of Government Peter Cannavo.
Mann is directing a number of fellow researchers in designing and conducting a scientifically reliable survey for sub-areas C and E of the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn in order to establish that the need for BOA funding exists among local business owners. The Gowanus area was once heavily industrialized, but over the past several decades all but 400 businesses have relocated, leaving the area with vacant and environmentally contaminated lots.
In order for Mann’s survey produce statistically significant results, she must obtain survey responses from at least 140 of the remaining businesses in her sub-areas. “It’s certainly a lot of work, but it’s very exciting,” she said. Mann has also interviewed local community organizations and medical experts to gain a better understanding of the real effects that brownfields have on the people living around them. The data her group collects will be presented to the NYSDEC in October, and Mann hopes to stay involved throughout the process and to conduct a similar study for her upcoming senior thesis.
While Mann was an active member of the Brooklyn environmental community even before starting this project, she says that her work with the SBIDC has opened her eyes to some of the problems that grant-seeking organizations face. She was shocked by the lack of efficiency inherent to many aspects of the grant application process. While Mann appreciates the SBDIC’s desire to help the community, she wishes that intermediary organizations weren’t necessary for communities to acquire BOA funds to clean up their neighborhoods. She suggests that “members of polluted and brownfield-ridden communities should be provided with the necessary financial and legal tools to apply for [BOA] grants themselves through grassroots organizations.”
Mann is a graduate of Millburn High School (N.J.)