Brownfield Sites


Brownfield is a legal term referring to real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant. A brownfield site is an unused or abandoned plot of land formerly used for industrial purposes which cannot be repurposed until it is cleaned or decontaminated.


Lysaght Village houses being built on former steelworks site in Newport City Gwent South Wales UK, 27 August 2010.

Lysaght Village houses being built on former steelworks site in Newport City Gwent South Wales UK, 27 August 2010.
(Jeff Morgan 02 / Alamy Stock Photo)


The EPA estimates that there are between 450,000 to one million brownfields in the United States. The contaminants found in areas designated as brownfields can include asbestos, lead, fuel and chemical spills, and industrial compounds. Labeling a property or area as a brownfield alerts the public of the risks assumed or proven to exist in that area and makes the unsuitability of redevelopment understood by potential developers. In 1995, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) started a reinvestment program for brownfields to reduce the amount of unusable land in the United States. There are 76,456 brownfield projects nationwide to reuse land with environmental and health concerns. Each U.S. state has its own departments designated for cleaning up brownfield sites.

Furthermore, many cities and towns that have a large percentage of land designated for industrial purposes have their own brownfields redevelopment authorities.

Interest groups

Developers, business owners, land owners, community members and groups, politicians and political entities, and nonprofit groups, all have roles to play in the redevelopment of a brownfield site. However, the process does not necessarily begin when the U.S. government has determined that a location is a brownfield. Lobbying by community groups, nearby land owners, and other interested parties can sometimes spur a decision on a disused, contaminated property. Although landowners or developers pay for the majority if not all of the necessary changes needed to bring a property back to functionality, there are many government-backed options for decreasing the cost and ensuring that land cleanup is done to the satisfaction of the EPA and local departments. Oversight during clean up can significantly reduce the cost by eliminating the need to repeat a process that did not meet standards and regulations the first time.

Any cause of impairment, destruction, ruin, or frustration; the state or result of being blighted or deteriorated, dilapidated or decaying.

Nonprofit organizations can also play a role in the cleanup of a brownfield. Many times community groups are responsible for the cleanup requests or initial designation of a site as a brownfield, calling attention to unused land, for example, The National Brownfield Association (NBA) is one such educational nonprofit organization dedicated to “stimulating the responsible redevelopment of brownfields” and building environmentally friendly construction projects on once disused, polluted, or contaminated sites.


Once property is designated as a brownfield, the owner of the land is compelled to make necessary changes to get the property back to an economically productive status. Revitalizing brownfields can be costly depending on the source and extent of contamination or concern. The existence of a brownfield can also impact the value of nearby property. Revitalizing brownfield land has been shown to improve the value of neighboring plot by 2–3% on average because potential threats associated with the land are removed, blight is removed, and the appearance of the neighborhood is improved. Redevelopment of a brownfield site will also add to the property tax grand list, as the property increases in value from renovations and clean up, further benefiting the surrounding area and municipality. Reopening a brownfield site to a developer or occupying the vacant space with new businesses add jobs, benefiting the community and contributing to payroll and sales tax rolls.

The 2008–2012 economic recession in the United States forced brownfield revitalization to be postponed, with projects being pushed back for months or years until funding could be secured for adequate clean up. The recession may also prove to have contributed to more brownfield sites in the future as land owners lose their abilities to maintain their properties and disposed of contaminants appropriately due to their associated costs.

See also Asbestos ; Hazardous waste ; Lead ; Safe Drinking Water Act ; Toxic Substances Control Act ; Water pollution .



Environmental Protection Agency. “Brownfields and Land Revitalization.” (accessed September 29, 2012).

Environmental Protection Agency. “Federal Partnerships, Brownfields, and Land Revitalization.” (accessed October 1, 2012).

Golden, Kate. “Recession worsens brownfields backlog in Wisconsin.” Wisconsin . September 23, 2012. (accessed December 1, 2012).

National Brownfield Association. (accessed September 28, 2012).


Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 4770 Buford Hwy. NE, Atlanta, GA, 30341, (800) 232-4636,, .

Environmental Protection Agency, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC, 20460, (202) 272-0167, .

Alyson C. Heimer, MA

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.