Brownies for Brownfields

December 6, 2023

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If you’ve spent any amount of time as a GIS analyst, particularly in the public sector, you’ve probably heard the term “brownfield”. A brownfield is a property, commercial or residential,  that is affected by the existence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant. Generally this happens because either the site housed an industrial facility that produced one of these substances, or was a retail site for a business using or selling a potential contaminant like automotive fuel at a gas station or solvents for a dry cleaning store.  

Brownfields are a nuisance because they tend to be ugly. They are often worse than just unsightly because they are likely to contain hazards such as unsafe structures, sharp objects, or toxic chemicals that were either the intended end result of a process or a by-product of something else

Brownfields exist around the world and are fairly common in some places. The United States has an estimated 500,000 brownfields, according to the EPA. 88% of these identified brownfields are located in urban areas and the remaining 12% are found in rural and tribal areas. 

When brownfields are cleaned up, the sites can be reused for a variety of community-revitalizing activities. Just starting the process of cleaning them up can be revitalizing to a community by facilitating job growth and development pressures off green spaces and working lands, such as farms, forests, and other productive properties. According to the EPA, cleaning up brownfields and reusing existing infrastructure can increase local tax bases and increase residential property values. Some studies have shown that property values near former brownfield sites can increase from anywhere between 5%-15% after those brownfields have been remediated. 

GIS is an important tool in the management and remediation of contaminated properties. Three main tasks are involved in the process, and GIS can support all of them:

  • Locate (manually, by using GPS, or by using prediction models)
  • Inventory 
  • Document (using maps)

I recently had the pleasure of talking to the staff at Thrive West Central about their recently launched program that seeks to assess, inventory, characterize brownfield properties to create a comprehensive brownfield plan, and develop site-specific reuse plans. Using GIS, a $400,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (part of a larger earmark by the Biden Administration of 9.9 billion dollars to the state of Indiana), and delicious brownies, Thrive is working with the Vermillion County Redevelopment Commission to build strong communities and improve the quality of life in West Central Indiana.

Karen Schneiders, Director of Community Development for Thrive, set the stage for us as she described the history of Vermillion County. A small, lightly populated county, immediately north of Terre Haute, Vermillion is home to crop and livestock agriculture and has over the years hosted a variety of industrial activities including manufacturing, chemical production, and wartime munitions production for the Department of Defense. (Interview 08/17/2023). Vermillion was home to the Newport Army Ammunition Plant during WWII, Elanco (an Eli Lily Company), and International Paper (Newport Mill) to name a few. As these facilities closed or moved to other places, Vermillion County was left with numerous brownfield sites that could pose physical threats to the community.

Wide, Open Spaces

Remediating brownfields is not an easy task no matter the size of the community.  Generally larger, more urban communities have an easier time remediating and redeveloping brownfields because they are working in high-density areas where there are usually extensive resources, both personnel and financial, meaning that they have access to a variety of funding sources, contractors, and volume pricing from vendors. 

Rural communities on the other hand, tend to be large, low-density areas with limited funds for projects overall. Brownfield remediation and redevelopment is always going to have to compete with other projects for funds and personnel. And it’s not just money. Brownfields can be difficult to manage because, as Kristine Krueger, Associate Director of Community Development says,   “...the geography of the county is so long, we can't necessarily hop into our cars and try to locate every single site.” The towns are usually manageable, but outside the town proper can be difficult to access. Additionally, Thrive won’t work on a site if the property owner isn’t supportive, and there isn’t always incentive for them to participate like there might be in a wealthy urban community.

Brownies for Brownfields

Sometimes even the smallest incentive is enough to make change. Jordan Cunningham, Thrive’s Grant Writer, tells the story of how the Thrive team ended up at the county fair one year and brought some chocolatey goodness to sweeten the pot and encourage community members to have a chat about something that most of them didn’t know about. The team walked in the parade and handed out vouchers that said: “Come see us at the booth. We'd love your feedback…” and input on where brownfields are. It was anonymous enough, says Cunningham, that the team didn't feel like we were pointing out anybody's specific property and community members weren’t  being singled out. People came to the booth, received a brief education on brownfields and a brownie! The Thrive team was successful in connecting with the community and collecting data about brownfield locations around the county.

When Tyler Hudson started with Thrive in 2022, he didn’t join with the intention of becoming Thrive’s GIS Analyst, but according to Krueger, he jumped right in and said “this is what we can do with GIS.” Hudson was an environmental science major in college and had some GIS experience from classes and work opportunities previous to Thrive. Now, Hudson is managing the Vermillion County brownfield database and using a variety of resources to beef up the inventory and identify ways to make the best use of their technical resources. Thrive is using paper maps and Esri's ArcGIS Survey123 to collect information, ArcGIS Online web maps to present the results of the various surveys and field investigations, and ArcGIS Pro to manage and maintain the spatial database for the brownfield inventory.

The inventory is a collaborative effort between the community, the County, the State of Indiana, and EPA. The local database maintained by Hudson, contains local information for the brownfield sites that the Thrive team have identified through community outreach. Hudson cross-references data collected locally with the Indiana Finance Authority’s Brownfields Database, and the Assessment, Cleanup and Redevelopment Exchange System (ACRES), an online database for Brownfields Grant recipients. Data is electronically shared with EPA though ACRES. It’s important, according to multiple members of the Thrive team, to keep the data discussion interactive. Meaning, the information collected isn’t just going into a system never to be seen again by community members. It’s an open and continuous conversation between the community, Thrive, and the government partners. The Thrive team collects data and takes it to the redevelopment commission and the towns’ redevelopment teams to ensure that they all know what community members think and what is important to the community. Thrive wants to ensure the community desires for use are understood. They don't want to redevelop a brownfield to be a waterpark when the community wants housing. 

Other data related to brownfields in rural areas is tricky to obtain in ways that it might not be in urban areas. Planner Julie Hart says that some of the aerial imagery Thrive has access to has been helpful to show what might have existed on a property in the past, but that imagery is pretty much limited to urban areas. For a rural county like Vermillion, it’s possible to see sites if they’re on a state highway or US Highway. Hart says with a laugh, “in reality, there is no Google car running around the back roads of Vermillion County.”

Thrive GIS Analyst Tyler Hudson expanded on data and data challenges for brownfield identification in Vermillion County. Access to imagery is another great example of collaboration between different levels of government and organization's imagery that Ms. Hart describes is available to Thrive because the Indiana Geographic Information Council’s (IGIC) Indiana Map ArcGIS Hub site offers data and imagery to GIS professionals across the state.

While brownfield identification models like HR Greens Prioritization Model work for urban areas, there isn’t the same level of model sophistication for rural areas. Hudson says that part of the process of developing the brownfield inventory in Vermillion County is to develop their own rule examples. It’s not that it can’t be done, it’s just not where they can spend their resources right now. 

The Future of GIS at Thrive

Once the current assessments are complete the team hopes to do more outreach with students to educate them about brownfields and the community. Associate Director Krueger has already reached out to the County Sheriff’s Department to engage their staff in locating sites and educating the public.

Hudson hopes to add to the technical capabilities of the office by including tools like ArcGIS Field Maps and adding to the educational resources by building an ArcGIS StoryMap.

Now that they have the inventory with all the work that has been put into outreach,  Thrive is looking towards the next step: the cleanup. Thrive is hoping to obtain a cleanup grant for the County in the near future so that the County can use the data collected to assess the most problematic sites and get started on cleanup and redevelopment. 

Using GIS to manage the brownfield inventory for Vermillion County, Indiana, Thrive, its partners, and the Vermillion community, are a great example of innovative ways to solicit, collect and manage data on rural brownfields and encourage community participation. Collaborative efforts are key because as Director Schneiders said, “...the whole idea of the Brownies for Brownfields, the approach to the public involvement and addressing all of these needs, has been a group effort… Everyone has a chance to participate and everyone has a chance to bring their strength.”


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