Exploring Environmental Challenges to Redevelopment in the Greater East St Louis Area

About | General Information | Researching | Challenges | Resources


General Information

·         What is a brownfield?

·         What are the causes of brownfields?

·         What types of contaminated sites exist?

·         Where are brownfields?

·         How many brownfields exist?

·         What are the costs of brownfields?

·         What government entities deal with brownfields?

·         What are the key pieces of brownfields legislation?


What is a brownfield?

Defined by the EPA as 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. The federal definition of brownfield does not include Superfund sites which are so severely contaminated as to qualify for placement on the National Priorities List (NPL) and eligibility for large amounts of cleanup funds. Definitions of “brownfield” vary from state to state and can be used in a variety of contexts (See Younts, 2003). In Illinois, a brownfield is defined as “A parcel of real property, or a portion of the parcel, that has actual or perceived contamination and an active potential for redevelopment.”

Text Box: Examples of potential Brownfields in East St. Louis      
Click to enlarge

What are the causes of brownfields?

The causes of brownfields vary, as do their size and severity. Abandoned factories, plants, or other sites of industrial production that use chemicals or produce chemical waste are obvious sites of brownfields. There are also more subtle brownfield sites such as gas stations, funeral parlors, drycleaners, or auto-body shops whose operations require chemical use, storage, and disposal. A small site can be severely contaminated and pose serious threat to public health and large sites can be lightly contaminated.


In East St. Louis, the both the city’s industrial and more populated pasts have caused brownfields. The city and its surrounding areas include many operations that have required or still require processes with contaminating inputs and/or outputs. Some of the more recognizable sites are the abandoned gas stations throughout East St. Louis and the abandoned factories sprinkled throughout the Metro East.


What types of contaminated sites exist?

The Environmental Protection Agency uses a three-tiered hazard ranking system: National Priorities List (NPL or Superfund), Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Information System (CERCLIS) sites, and No Further Remedial Action Planned (NFRAP).  Given the threat certain sites pose to groundwater, EPA specifically categorizes within brownfield sites those with underground storage tanks (USTs) and leaking underground storage tanks (LUSTs) given the threat they pose to groundwater. L/USTs can contain many chemicals but are often used to store petroleum products, which leave considerable cleanup challenges. Superfund sites have extremely high levels of contamination and pose a higher threat than other brownfields. For this reason, funds are available specifically for their costly remediation.


Where are brownfields?

The short answer is “most everywhere.” Any city with an abandoned gas station, closed dry cleaner or funeral parlor, or even a school with asbestos ceiling tiles technically has brownfields.


In East St. Louis, remnants of the city’s industrial and more populated past riddle the landscape. Abandoned chemical plants, whose pollution left soil and air quality compromised, old schools with crumbling asbestos, and gas stations empty and idle are all a part of the city. Some of the more obvious brownfields (abandoned factories) are on the peripheries of the city, while other, more subtle potential brownfields are right in the middle of neighborhoods.


There are major challenges in identifying where brownfields are because, for many reasons, nowhere is there a comprehensive inventory of brownfield sites. It would be incredibly resource-intensive to identify all of the brownfields in a given city. Doing so could also have a negative effect on redevelopment, the opposite of intentions. See “Research” for more information on identifying brownfields


How many brownfields exist?

The short answer to that is “No one knows for sure.” The U.S. General Accounting Office has estimated that over 40,000 brownfields exists in the nation, but there is no comprehensive inventory anywhere in the United States.


In East St. Louis, no registry of brownfields, or vacant property more generally, exists. Within the city it is also extremely difficult to quantify the number of brownfields. While abandoned factories could be easily counted, there are other factories that have been demolished, former gas stations that now operate as auto shops, churches, or other uses.


What are the costs of brownfields?

Brownfields, both mitigated and unmitigated have costs associated with him. While an unmitigated, vacant, contaminated land may not appear to a cost, in reality it is an enormous opportunity cost. Lost potential tax revenue for local governments as a result of real estate devaluation (both of the site itself and surrounding areas is one major cost of keeping the status quo. Additionally, economic consequences from damaging public health and the surrounding ecosystem, as well as economic implications from a less dense urban environment that greenfied development necessitates.

The cost of mitigating brownfields also has costs associated with it. Assessment costs, remediation planning costs, pollution mitigation costs, risk management costs, insurance costs, and a host of other—often unpredictable—costs. It is also not assured that mitigation will produce benefits for all involved parties. Redeveloping a contaminated piece of land in a weak market versus a strong market have different implications for rates of return and financial feasibility (See Meyer, 2003).


What government entities deal with brownfields?

The Environmental Protection Agency is the main federal authority for the classification and remediation of brownfields. However, there are many additional agencies involved in the redevelopment of brownfields; agencies involved vary from state to state. Some of the most agencies more commonly involved in encouraging redevelopment are Commerce, Housing and Natural Resources, but agencies involved can vary depending on the project.


In East St. Louis, the Public Housing Authority, the City of East St. Louis and the Illinois EPA are the most active agencies.


What are the key pieces of brownfields legislation?

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), passed in 1980 and also known as Superfund, mandated the systematic remediation of contaminated sites and established liability for contaminated sites.


The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was established in 1976 and is designed to control solid waste management practices that could endanger public health and the environment. The EPA regulates and tracks sits that generate transport and dispose of hazardous waste as classified by RCRA.


While the aforementioned Small Business Liability and Brownfield Relief act doesn’t regulate brownfields, it does provide funding for brownfields and is certainly a key piece of federal legislation.




Another example of a former auto repair and filling station in East St. Louis has an undocumented remediation status.