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How a New England town fights environmental injustice – one brownfield at a time

Brownfields, industrial sites with environmental contamination that prevents new land use, are disproportionately located in low-income, minority communities. Lawrence, Massachusetts is trying to change that.

When Lesly Melendez thinks of her walk to school as a child in Lawrence, Mass., she remembers the tall fence, cloaked with black cloth, decorated with caution tape and “Keep Out” signs. The six-foot-tall fence overtook the sidewalk, warning passerbys away from what used to be the Russell Paper Mill the burned bones of a former factory, so shelled that it was nicknamed “the Dresden of Lawrence.”

“As a kid growing up and walking by things like that…” Ms. Melendez trails off and sighs. “I didn’t like telling people I was from here… Lawrence wasn’t seen as a nice place to be.”

Lawrence, one of New England’s first prosperous mill towns, is now one of its poorest communities and a stark example of environmental injustice. Across the country, hotspots for pollution are disproportionately located in low-income, non-white communities like Lawrence, while wealthy corporations and mainly white communities reap the economic benefits. With last century’s industries long gone, today’s young, immigrant families are burdened with the cleanup.

Along with several grassroots efforts, Lawrence runs a job training program in which local workers can get certified in environmental remediation to clean up brownfields: properties where redevelopment is stalled because of potential pollution. The program has allowed hundreds of local workers to boost their resume, lead change in their community, and create redevelopment opportunities in previous brownfields.

The city’s success – and its collaborative approach – could offer a model for the thousands of other low-income, minority neighborhoods in the US suffering with brownfields. For Lawrence, brownfields are about more than jobs and blight: cleaning up past pollution boosts a community’s self-esteem.

“Brownfields are one of the programs where you really see the connection between environmental justice and opportunity,” says Alexandra Dunn, administrator for the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 1 which includes six New England states. “Through these grants we can create a very different chemistry in these communities – one that is focused on economic vitality and the future, as opposed to the historic presence of pollution.”

Lesly Melendez stands in front of Oxford Park, a former brownfield site that she walked by as a child. Photo: Story Hinckley

But locals in Lawrence refuse to let black cloaked fences and caution tape be their future. As deputy director of the local nonprofit Groundworks Lawrence, Melendez now applies for grants and rallies support to clean up brownfields, converting them into clean, open spaces.

“Other things happen, other sexier things come up and people forget that [brownfields] are here,” says Melendez. “But there are plenty of us that live and work here that want to make sure this is a better place for our children, and our children’s children.”

‘Death by a thousand cuts’

By the US Environmental Protection Agency’s estimation, the US has more than 450,000 brownfield sites – properties where redevelopment or reuse is complicated by the presence (or potential presence) of a hazardous pollutant. Factories, dry cleaners, gas stations, and many other commonplace properties become brownfields in their afterlife, requiring state or local agencies to monitor for leaked chemicals or buried pollutants.

Some designated brownfields – such as Lawrence’s Ferrous Park – had no serious contamination upon assessment, while others – such as Lawrence’s Dr. Nina Scarito Park – continued to pollute water, soil, or air for years. Either way, once a site is designated a brownfield it requires a costly assessment which is often cost prohibitive for developers – especially in communities with shrinking populations and economies.

These state and locally-managed properties may seem inconsequential compared to the country’s federally-managed 1,338 Superfund sites, which are typically more serious sites of contamination, such as landfills or mines. But the sheer number of brownfields, and the residual blight they leave on communities, make them a priority for places like Lawrence.

“Brownfields are among us. Their impact on humans is direct and tangible,” says Justin Hollander, an associate professor at Tufts University, and the author of several books on brownfield pollution. “If you talk to someone who lives across the street from one, they would say we need to talk about this now. They continue to represent a real threat to investment in neighborhoods.”

Lawrence today is a maze of empty, five-story, brick warehouses. Some have been renovated into loft apartments with gyms and open-floor plans. Others have blown out windows and graffiti. Despite being six square miles, Lawrence has more than 50 brownfields according to the US Environmental Protection Agency – an aftershock of its former life as a mill town.

Because of their proximity to water power, mill companies flocked to New England towns in the 19th century. And Lawrence, located at the confluence of two rivers and a canal, became a hub for both industry and immigrants: by the early 20th century almost half of the city’s population was foreign born.

Images from Lawrence’s days as a mill epicenter. Photos: Library of Congress

But everything changed in the 1970s and 1980s when the mills started to close or move overseas. The Russell Paper Mill site that Melendez passed on her way to school, for example, once had more than 500 employees and made the glossy paper for National Geographic. But industry left the building in 1974 and it sat untouched for years, falling in on itself and occasionally catching on fire as it sat in brownfield purgatory. More than four decades later, industry still trickles out of Lawrence.

“It’s kind of like death by a thousand cuts,” says Christopher De Souza, an urban planning professor at Ryerson University in Ontario who has spent decades studying brownfields in the US. “All of this vacancy makes the neighborhood seem like its shrinking and decaying.”

A factory town, reinvented

Local resident Ramon Riquel moved to Lawrence from Puerto Rico a decade ago and spent the last seven years working at the Crown Cork and Seal factory. In March he was laid off.

“They say the plant is down, no more work,” says Mr. Riquel. “It’s easy for them but it’s not easy for us.”

No one industry has come in to replace Lawrence’s mills, but the immigrant community once galvanized by these sites has continued to grow. More than 77 percent of the city’s population is Hispanic and more than 25 percent below the poverty level. The average unemployment rate in Lawrence last year was 6.5 percent – almost twice the national average.

“Who are our industries? Who are our job seekers?” Susan Almono, deputy director of the Merrimack Valley Workforce Investment Board (MVWIB), remembers thinking several years ago. “And how to bring them together to really drive help drive economic development?”

Susan Almono of the Merrimack Valley Workforce Investment Board speaks with current trainee Eleazer Vasquez in Lawrence, Mass. Photo: Story Hinckley

The MVWIB, currently transitioning to the name “MassHire,” oversees federally-funded employment services in more than a dozen Northern Massachusetts cities to help boost local economies. With this charge, and an understanding of the area’s overlap of high employment and environmental contamination, Ms. Almono applied for a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Workforce Development and Job Training Program in 2011.

Founded originally as the Brownfields Job Training Program in 1998, the EPA’s program has since awarded almost $60 million across almost 300 grants to recruit, employ and train unemployed, low-income or minority locals for jobs in environmental remediation. Since it began, the program has trained about 15,000 individuals nationwide and placed about two-thirds of them in full-time jobs.

“The jobs training program through the brownfields program truly is a success story,” says Ms. Dunn at the EPA. “It often isn’t given headline attention, but it really is an example of EPA and local communities working together.”

Lawrence, a city with less than 90,000 people, stands out nationally in remediation employment. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Lawrence and its surrounding region has the second highest concentration of hazardous removal jobs in the country. The majority of local workers graduate from the for-profit Lawrence Training School, but the MVWIB’s free training programs have made the industry possible for people like Riquel.

“We are preparing local residents for good paying jobs, that are accessible to them, and there is a high demand for in our region,” says Almono. “Environmental work is work of the future.”

Lawrence also stands out when it comes to job training grants, beating out applications from across the country. Although Lawrence makes up less than 1 percent of Massachusetts’ population, it has received 30 percent of the state’s $3.6 million job training grants since 1994. Before earning their fourth job training grant in the fall of 2017, MVWIB had trained 117 residents with 82 percent of them finding immediate employment. Almono says the average hourly pay for these workers is $18.21, which is above the state’s $11 minimum wage.

But not all job training grants are equal. Although there are currently about 80 active job training grants in the US, many of them have low graduation rates or employ graduates in low paying jobs.

MVWIB’s programs are successful, says Almono, because they have learned to adapt their program. After talking with participants, they realized the first few trainings were too long, for example, and that they were offering too many certifications. They also realized they could offer more intensive trainings such as truck driving rather than just asbestos or lead abatement.

Almono says they hope to update the program again following Lawrence’s deadly gas explosions in September. Locals say the explosions are yet another example of failing infrastructure and environmental injustice in Lawrence – of Lawrence being forgotten by everyone who lives elsewhere. The explosions, which killed one person and left thousands of others without heat or homes, proved to Almono the need for more local experts in weatherization. Another offensive for her pollution-fighting army.

Riquel now has his CDL-B license to drive dump trucks and other vehicles common on a construction or remediation site. Without the EPA-funded MVWIB program, Riquel would have had to pay upwards of $5,000 to enroll in a trucking licensing class on his own.

“All the people over there, they helped me a lot,” says Riquel. “I wouldn’t have this job without the program.”

Progress for all?

Before resigning amid scandal in July, President Trump’s former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt succeeded in rolling back dozens of regulations, cut staff and funding for the agency, and worked with Trump to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord. Trump’s administration also proposed eliminating the EPA’s environmental justice department.

But if there were any EPA programs that Pruitt supported during his tenure, it was the agency’s Superfund and brownfield programs, calling them “absolutely essential,” and issuing $54.3 million in brownfield grants in March.

He also awarded $3.3 million in job training grants to 17 organizations in May for the 2018 fiscal year, bringing the allocation close to 2016 figures after a $800,000 cut in 2017. Gina McCarthy, President Obama’s second EPA administrator and a critic of Pruitt, was unsurprised at Pruitt’s support, calling Superfund and brownfield sites “clearly some of the most popular programs.”

Two decades ago, for example, Massachusetts passed a law creating financial incentives to cleanup and reuse contaminated property that is still popular. And earlier this year President Trump signed The Brownfields Utilization, Investment and Local Development (BUILD) Act into law, which among other things, increased cleanup grant funding.

“Brownfields have always done well regardless of the administration in power,” says De Souza. “It’s one of the few environmental programs that you can point to that removes blight, brings new development, and brings new jobs… Politicians love taking pictures with shovels.”

Lawrence is located at the intersection of three waterways, including the Merrimack River pictured here. Photo: Story Hinckley

Although safety precautions have improved drastically over the last decade, environmental remediation is still a dangerous job. Low-income, minority communities in Massachusetts already have disproportionately higher rates of lead poisoning, and job training programs for low-income minorities in this kind of remediation work could be seen as yet another example of injustice.

But for locals in Lawrence, the work represents opportunity.

“You could always say there are morality issues, but mentally, if you are cleaning an area where you have lived all your life, and it’s getting better, it’s a sense a pride,” says local resident Ramon Quezada. “When you see things are coming back to life, I think it builds a sense of pride in communities like Lawrence.”

Lawrence as a model

Like Melendez, Mr. Quezada grew up in Lawrence. He left the Dominican Republic with his parents in the mid-1980s, following Quezada’s grandmother who moved to Lawrence a decade earlier to work in the mills. And like Melendez, Quezada still remembers the blight he saw as a child.

“I saw all these mills abandoned and I saw all these burnt homes,” says Quezada.

Ramon Quezada stands in front of his office in Lawrence, Mass. Photo: Story Hinckley

And like Melendez, Quezada decided to do something about it. Seeing all the work that needed to be done in New England, and all of his neighbors without jobs, Quezada co-founded Labor on Site in the early 2000s, a staffing firm for environmental remediation workers. After workers graduate from the MVWIB program, or the Lawrence Training School located above Quezada’s office, he helps connect them with contractors.

Last year Labor on Site placed 733 workers, with more than 600 of them coming from Lawrence. Quezada’s records show they distributed $4.5 million in payroll, mainly to local workers from Lawrence.

“Lawrence is going in a new direction,” says Querzada. “And we’re helping with that.”

In 2014 the former Russell Paper Mill became the Oxford Park with help from Groundwork Lawrence. After 30 years of stop-and-start remediation, the site is now a parking lot and open green space with a bike path.

Long grasses bend in the wind, free from any fence.