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EPA Issues Interim Guidelines for Urban Agriculture on Brownfield Sites

Urban agriculture is exploding in cities - large and small - throughout the nation. In many cities, local land use laws and zoning ordinances are being amended or drafted to support this new-found passion. But with precious "green" space in cities (and rooftops in limited supply), many urban farmers may be forced to turn to contaminated spaces, i.e., brownfields, for their farming needs. But can these farmers ensure that these brownfield spaces are clean enough; how clean should soil be to be clean for farming? 

In response to these concerns, in the Summer of 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") issued Brownfields and Urban Agriculture: Interim Guidelines for Safe Gardening Practices. These interim guidelines include an overview of the issues, EPA recommendations for soil cleanup levels, and a step-by-step "model" for how to possibly farm on brownfield sites.

As a precursor to the Interim Guidelines, in 2010, EPA presented two webinars entitled "The State of Science and Research Needs," and "Policy Barriers and Incentives to Reusing Brownfields for Community Gardens and Urban Agriculture," which presented a snapshot of the current science and policy issues affecting urban agriculture. As a result, EPA followed-up with a national workshop entitled "Brownfields and Urban Agriculture Midwest Summit" in October 2010, which brought together experts, community groups, non-profits, academics, and government to attempt to develop protocol for safe urban agriculture on contaminated sites.

The clear take-away from EPA's workshop was that the development of adequate preconditions to and precautions for urban farming of brownfields suffers from huge policy gaps; that is to say, advisory standards and practices for agricultural redevelopment are simply non-existent in most cities. There are also gaps in practice as well: for example, what farmers test for in the soil - nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and pH, for example - are not necessarily what needs to be tested for at brownfield sites, where contaminants like metals (i.e., lead and mercury) and other industrial contaminants (i.e., PCB) may be in the soil or groundwater. Thus, not only does the policy behind farming contaminated sites need to be updated, but the practice of farming must also be updated for contaminated sites.

In its Interim Guidelines, EPA homed in on what its sees as the three major issues surrounding brownfields and urban agriculture:

  1. Researching the site's history and past uses;
  2. Options for testing, cleanup, or exposure management approaches; and
  3. Developing cleanup standards for food grown for consumption.

Using these three issues as a basis, the EPA Interim Guidelines attempts to offer "a simple logic model" for farmers who may want to farm on a brownfield site. The model is based on EPA-recognized best management practices ("BMPs") that attempt to significantly reduce the risk of exposure to contamination, and relies upon methods already used to identify the contaminants and the level of contamination at brownfield sites. As the title suggests, these guidelines are meant to be used in the interim, until (and in the hopes that) a more concrete process - including soil cleanup levels for agriculture - can be established.

EPA's Interim Guidelines describes the process by which a farmer should consider safely implementing a garden or livestock operation of any type on a brownfield through a series of questions a farmer must first ask concerning four main areas of concern. Those questions are:

  1. Identify Previous Uses
  • What is the history of the proposed site?
  • What does the site history suggest about the likelihood of contamination and potential site risks to food production? Does the previous use present a high or low risk to site soil and water?
  1. Perform Sampling
  • What additional information is needed to determine soil quality?
  • What additional information is needed to identify or rule out potential contamination risks?
  • What is the risk of contamination on site (low or high) and what is the correct methodology for sampling?
  1. Interpret Results
  • What do the sampling results mean for risk to growers or healthy plant growth?
  • What contamination levels are low, frequently seen, easily addressed and can be managed with good practices?
  • What levels are too high and require involvement of environmental experts?
  1. Manage Risks & Perform Cleanup
  • When is cleanup necessary?
  • Which remediation techniques are best for agriculture reuses?
  • What physical controls, if any, can be constructed?
  • How can the BMPs be implemented on site?
  • Are there things that can be done without performing a full remediation? What are everyday practices that will reduce risk?
  • How can good habits, e.g., washing produce, wearing gloves when in the garden, be emphasized to help reduce the risk?

EPA's "simple logic model," however, seems both overly simplified and cost-prohibitively complex. On the one hand, the EPA's Interim Guidelines seem to suggest an easy process that entails not much more than asking a few questions. On the other hand, however, those questions can open up a can of worms (forgive the pun) for small urban farmers. For example, the cost to undertake investigation into the on-site contamination can amount to thousands of dollars. That doesn't even factor in the cost for actual remediation of the site, which could likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, or monitoring of the site, which can tack on years before the site is "approved" by the appropriate governmental agency. Even just the implementation of physical controls (i.e., concrete slabs) may make a site practically impossible for agriculture. Moreover, the "good habits" will do little to prevent contamination of the flesh of the fruit or prevent human or animal exposure from inhalation of vapors, for example.

Despite overlooking some of these practical issues with its "logic model," EPA did concede that there are many complicating factors to farming brownfields - the high number of exposure variables and various exposure routes; different soil types, garden sizes, crop types, contaminate types; and varying state regulations - and that creating a program at the national, state, or local level would not be a quick or easy undertaking.

Most importantly, the Interim Guidelines recognizes that a separate soil cleanup category should be established for agricultural uses of contaminated sites, although this was not the focus of the workshop efforts. Here in New York for example, whether at the City or State level, there are currently no standards for a level of cleanup associated with agricultural reuses of brownfield sites. Nevertheless, as EPA notes, residential use cleanup levels - which the State does have - should be sufficient in the interim for urban agriculture uses, provided that the BMPs (as discussed in the Interim Guidelines) are also implemented on-site. (Even though the residential use cleanup levels are currently the highest cleanup levels promulgated, the residential use cleanup levels are not tailored to the specific health and environmental concerns associated with agriculture; agricultural cleanup levels, if developed, are likely to be much more stringent than even the unrestricted residential levels that are currently in place.)

And while urban agriculture is something that is undoubtedly good for local communities, the very real fact remains that the cost to cleanup contaminated properties can amount to millions of dollars. Very few urban farmers or not-for-profit organizations can afford to undertake the cleanup of brownfields for their urban farms, and it is unlikely that many for-profit corporations would see the benefit in spending millions of dollars to cleanup a brownfield site for a farm that would not be able to recoup those costs. Our experience is that very few entities undertake not-for-profit or low-profit ventures on brownfield sites, and even then, such entities are typically looking for government approval to build residential or residential-type uses, such as school facilities, where the incoming revenue would be much higher.

So, while the concept of remediating contaminated properties to utilize every last bit of precious space in cities for urban agriculture is laudable, the practicality of the situation might undermine the entire practice unless there are other (e.g., monetary) incentives provided. Time will only tell if brownfields are the next farming frontier.

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