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Booming postindustrial neighborhoods often overlook polluted past

In former factory districts, postindustrial authenticity comes with potential for hidden pollution

Kensington, a flourishing, formerly industrial neighborhood in Philadelphia.
Courtesy NKCDC

Philadelphia realtor Arvind Balaji positions Regent Row as a chance to catch a neighborhood on the upswing. This under-construction development Balaji is selling promises high-end living in Kensington, one of a cluster of flourishing, formerly industrial districts that have repackaged their gritty pasts for a new generation of buyers.

Located northeast of downtown, Kensington is a neighborhood on the rise, where empty lots, old lofts, and abandoned warehouses made way for new breweries, cafes, restaurants, and street murals. Home values in some areas have jumped 50 percent since 2014. One developer working on a nearby affordable housing project spoke of the “rebirth and reinvigoration” coming to a neighborhood grappling with serious crime and the opioid epidemic.

Regent Row seeks to capitalize on this rise. Currently under construction by developer PRDC Properties and contractors from M2 Construction at the intersection of Montgomery Avenue and Howard Street, the development will comprise 36 townhouses priced in the mid-$500,000s.

While Kensington’s momentum shows no signs of slowing, parts of Regent Row are currently on pause. According to a stop-work order issued by Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections on September 6, during the course of construction a contractor hit an underground tank on a lot at 1752 N. Howard that no one knew was there. The collision caused a leak of industrial oil classified as oil No. 3, a type of fuel oil that isn’t used much anymore. Contractors now need to remove the contaminated soil before continuing their work.

“Our intention is to always make a positive impact in the communities in which we develop,” read a statement from a spokesperson for M2 Construction. “We are sensitive to our short term and long term legacies as neighbors, developers, landlords, and partners. Of course, complying with applicable laws, regulations and ordinances is part of that commitment and we proactively work alongside city and state agencies to ensure our projects go beyond compliance and further serve the best interest of the community at large.”

Discovering old abandoned heating oil is a common occurrence—due to regulations like the Storage and Spill Prevention Act, old heating oil tanks are exempt from registration—and M2 is following protocol for cleanup. But problems like the one at Regent Row, whether in Philadelphia, a city once known as the “workshop of the world” for its extensive manufacturing sector, or other former manufacturing and industrial areas turned development hot spots across the United States, highlight a larger issue.

According to Sites Unseen: Uncovering Hidden Hazards in American Cities, a new book by sociologists Scott Frickel of Brown University and James R. Elliott of Rice University, city planners and developers are woefully under-informed when it comes to the true extent of pollution underneath U.S. cities.

Their analysis of industrial sites and decades-old property records in select major U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, found that fewer than 10 percent of manufacturing sites were listed in available government databases, suggesting significant potential for unknown pollution lurking beneath the surface. In many former industrial districts turned hip neighborhoods, where warehouses and exposed-brick walls are seen as desirable signifiers of authenticity, the true legacy of these sites can be overlooked.

“Manufacturing companies go in and out of business as often as other companies,” Frickel told Curbed. “What happens when they close down, far more often than not, is that the visible evidence of industrial manufacturing disappears. Add to this the fact that residents are continually moving in and out of these areas, and you can lose the place memory that would locate those former sites.”

“The people redeveloping in those areas trade on that history of those old industrial factories,” says Frickel. “They’re valued for what they used to be. But what happens with the contaminants that go along with that? We just don’t know. The assumption is that those developing do their due diligence. But the testing and reporting of these hazards, and therefore the remediation, occurs within a semi-private real estate market.”

A map of the active industrial sites in Philadelphia from 2008, compiled by Frickell and Elliott.
Sites Unseen
For comparison, a map of the relic industrial sites form 1956 to 2007 uncovered by Frickel and Elliott’s research.
Sites Unseen

How a polluted past gets lost to history

Frickel and Elliott, who met at Tulane University in New Orleans, began the research that would comprise Sites Unseen in 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Observing the city in the aftermath of the storm, they became interested in re-development and how land use was changing.

The duo would discover that the city’s record were incomplete; combing through old manufacturing directories from the mid-20th century onward, they found numerous factory sites not listed in city databases. The lack of accurate historical data suggested many potential pollutants went unnoticed.

For most Americans, postindustrial cleanup means the EPA and the agency’s Superfund program, which spends tens and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars rehabilitating the country’s most toxic places (there are no such sites in Kensington). Sites like the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn or former steel mills in Gary, Indiana, offer high-visibility examples of how the system works by identifying the worst of the worst and marshaling resources to repair and rehabilitate.

But go beyond those high-profile examples, and it’s clear that numerous former industrial sites—especially prolific in urban industrial corridors now seeing a renewed interest for residential development—get much less attention and, therefore, resources. Roughly 800 million pounds of hazardous waste is released in the U.S. each year, according to Frickel and Elliott, from both massive corporations and small companies that quickly close. Over time, many are forgotten, leaving a legacy of pollution that remains undiscovered.

After the duo expanded their research into Portland, Oregon; Minneapolis; and Philadelphia, exhuming decades-old industrial and manufacturing databases and directories, they concluded that a significant gap exists between what’s likely in the ground and what cities and regulatory agencies currently have on the record. Huge variability exists between cities, especially in terms of how they keep records.

Making matters worse, Frickel explains, is the current system of site investigation and cleanup. Nationally, developers need to conduct what’s called a Phase 1 site investigation of a potential building site, which involves hiring a private environmental consulting firm. Since finding something means clean-up costs and plummeting property value, Frickel says that there’s an incentive to sweep issues aside in the interests of development. The disincentive to stop construction means a “soft nondisclosure is reinforced.”

“This isn’t a conspiracy of the regulatory agencies,” says Elliott. “They simply don’t have the resources to do what they want to do.”

Philadelphia exemplifies just how the challenge of record-keeping can obscure a true understanding of potential industrial hazards. Diane Sicotte, a sociology professor at Drexel University who focuses on environmental justice, wrote From Workshop to Waste Magnet: Environmental Inequality in the Philadelphia Region. She says that Philadelphia’s long history as a manufacturing hub, including its water-powered mills from the 18th century, make it especially difficult to get a full picture of potential hazards.

Areas like Northern Liberties, Kensington, and Fishtown, filled with former shipping and manufacturing sites due to their closeness to the Delaware River, accumulated generations of hazards and the side effects of industrialization.

“At one time, there were 35 lead smelters in Philadelphia,” says Sicotte. “A disproportionate number were located around Kensington and Fishtown, areas undergoing rapid gentrification. People live too close to industry, and have always lived too close, and there’s no way to control for that, on the parcel level.”

An 1884 engraving of the Kensington Fire Brick Works. “People live too close to industry, and have always lived too close, and there’s no way to control for that, on the parcel level.”
UIG via Getty Images

Last summer, a sweeping investigation by the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News found that lead pollution in these neighborhoods was more severe than previously thought. After testing 114 sites in riverside wards of the city, investigators found three in four exhibited hazardous levels of lead contamination. In addition, reporters discovered high levels of lead dust on rowhouse stoops, near construction sites, and at neighborhood playgrounds.

But, despite this history of lead smelting, developers are not required to test soil for lead when disturbing land, the report notes, and no single agency in city government is responsible for making certain soil is safe.

“People just don’t know it’s there,” says Sicotte. “Philadelphia has seen so much industrialization and changes over the years, but our city doesn’t do a good job of keeping track of where everything was.”

Despite the city’s best efforts, planners struggle with the legacy of uncontrolled industrial zoning, says Sicotte. Untangling factory pollution from new residential construction is a daunting challenge when chemicals and leaks don’t abide by man-made property lines.

“Part of the reason people aren’t aware of [these potential hazards] is the limited knowledge that we have of the environmental conditions in the city,” she says. “We have just 11 air monitors in the city of Philadelphia, and soil samples aren’t always reported to the public. There’s really just a couple data points we can work from.”

Creating a process that supports environmental justice

Sicotte sees the accumulation of these environmental hazards as intertwined with questions of environmental justice and racism. People of color suffer disproportionately from environmental pollution in the United States. Fumes Across the Fence-Line, a joint report from the NAACP, Clean Air Task Force (CATF), and National Medical Association (NMA) released last November, chronicled the health and environmental-justice issues that result from the current concentration of refineries and other facilities in lower-income neighborhoods.

More than 1 million black Americans live in counties that “face a cancer risk above [the] EPA’s level of concern from toxics emitted by natural gas facilities.” Due to heightened exposure to pollution, the report concluded that black children suffer from 138,000 asthma attacks and 101,000 lost school days each year.

Considering how many poor Americans are forced to live near environmental hazards, focusing on the pollution in former industrial areas that have become hip havens for development and new, wealthy residents, may seem unfair. But, if it can highlight regulatory and information gaps, it may lead to processes that make it easier to discover and remediate pollution everywhere.

“The challenge is getting the data out of these old books,” says Elliott. “It’s not an easy task. There’s a reason environmental agencies don’t have people on staff. It takes a lot of money and a lot of work.”