In 1988, Ware Shoals, S.C., lost its largest employer, a move that sent the town reeling. Since 1902, the massive textile mill had hummed with activity and provided employment for the 2,500 residents of the small town, which sits on the banks of the Saluda River in the western part of the state. "We were a single industry community," recalled Grant Duffield, the town's administrator. When the company, Riegel Textile Corp., pulled out, Ware Shoals was left with an abandoned 27-acre site in the center of town. But that was just the beginning of the problem. Along with skyrocketing unemployment, crime soared and those who could leave town moved away. What remained was a community on its knees, where 37 percent of the children were living in poverty.
The abandoned property was a classic brownfield site, scarred by decades of contamination. In 1995, the property owners agreed to turn the site over to the town without incurring liability for the cleanup. By 1998, Ware Shoals decided to redevelop the property and, with help from the Environmental Protection Agency, which designated it a brownfield assessment demonstration pilot site, received $200,000 to assess its cleanup needs and development potential.
Some of the funds have been used to populate a geographic information system with location data concerning pollution sources and plans for redevelopment. With the property located next to a scenic stretch of the Saluda River, town officials hope to attract commercial and residential development and help revive the local economy. And while Duffield doesn't want to overstate the benefits that technology has played in the mill site's renewal, it's clear GIS has had a major impact. "Without the technology, tackling a project of this magnitude would be impossible," he said.
The story of Ware Shoals and its brownfield is far from over. But it is indicative of a new attitude toward the nation's brownfields, where communities are viewing the once-abandoned sites not as eyesores, or ticking time bombs of contamination, but as potential real estate, ripe for development. New legislation that has eased certain liabilities concerning pollution and federal grants that can be leveraged for economic development, are turning brownfields into property goldmines for a growing number of communities. The combination of GIS and the Internet is helping all this happen.
There are as many as 600,000 brownfields in the United States covering several million acres of land. While many people picture abandoned brick factories reeking of pollution when they hear the term, brownfields are actually considered to be any abandoned or underused industrial or commercial property. "Many brownfields don't have problems, but have a perception of a problem," said Greg Jordan, a brownfield liaison for the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency.
That perception dates back to when government's only concern about these sites was whether or not they were contaminated. Brownfields were viewed strictly as an environmental issue. But when the economic boom of the '90s got under way and a number of cities began to enjoy a resurging interest in urban life, attitudes toward brownfields began to shift toward their development potential.
This recent shift in concern is reflected in the fact that state brownfield programs have been operating for less than a decade, according to the National Governors Association. In 1995, the EPA launched the Brownfield Initiative, a national program that has removed a number of barriers to the cleanup and development of brownfield sites. Property owners no longer were held legally and financially responsible if they had nothing to do with the pollution when they purchased a brownfield property.
Although the liability issue isn't entirely gone, the situation today is much better than it was in the '80s. Helping the matter is the EPA's more collaborative role with other federal agencies, such as the Department of Housing and