2020 Park Award: Sites Unseen

The winner of the 2020 Robert E. Park Award is Sites Unseen: Uncovering Hidden Hazards in American Cities.  New York: Russell Sage Foundation by Scott Frickel  & James R. Elliott. It is part of the American Sociological Association’s Rose Series in Sociology. Below is a discussion with the winners on industrial waste and its legacy in the urban landscape.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, urban industrial facilities across the country released nearly 750 million pounds of hazardous waste “on site” into lands where they operated in 2019. That amount might seem high, but in fact it grossly undercounts the volume of toxins that industries have dumped, leaked, injected, or buried into urban soils every year since the mid-1980s, when EPA personnel first began collecting such data. There are numerous reasons for that undercount. The exclusion of smaller facilities and select industries plays a role as do voluntary reporting rules. But beneath those gaps lies another pressing issue: Before 1986, no systematic data were collected on toxic industrial emissions, including those to land. As a result, many American cities now face a legacy hazardous waste problem they don’t even know they have.

In our book, Sites Unseen, we set out to discover how many such ignored sites of potential industrial waste exist and why over time they simultaneously seem to proliferate and disappear from view. The data we collected come from state manufacturing directories dating back to the 1950s. Those sources don’t tell us whether specific addresses are presently contaminated, but they do provide dynamic maps of where and for how long hazardous industries have operated in four very different cities – New Orleans, Minneapolis, Portland, and Philadelphia. In each, we were surprised to learn, government regulatory databases capture less than 10 percent of past manufacturing sites in sectors known locally and historically to release their hazardous wastes into on-site lands.

What about the other, missing 90-plus percent of relic industrial sites? By surveying hundreds of randomly selected cases in our database, we found that 95 percent had converted to non-hazardous uses in the form of coffee shops, apartments, restaurants, parks, childcare centers, and more. These findings corroborate processes we now understand drive both the spread and obfuscation of contaminated urban lands.

One of those processes is industrial churning. Like any other business, industrial facilities operate for a time before going out of business or moving elsewhere. Because urban land is limited and valuable, redevelopment of those same lots for other, non-industrial uses is the norm and ongoing. This means that any given site may be redeveloped multiple times, sometimes over just a few decades. This ongoing cycle of land use-reuse has far-reaching environmental impacts as industrial wastes accumulate and spread incrementally lot by lot across cities, while pressures for redevelopment cover up the evidence. Subsequent and highly selective regulation and remediation of larger, longer-lived industrial sites then provides political cover for regulatory agencies as developers look for public remediation assistance and promises of liability-free re-development.

And so, the problem of relic industrial waste has become far greater and more vexing than many scholars, regulators, and developers appreciate. This complexity, in turn, has important implications for environmental justice and questions about who lives, works, and plays in neighborhoods burdened by relic industrial contaminants. Our findings indicate that, over time, we’re all in this together: The white working-class neighborhoods of yesteryear; the lower-income and minority neighborhoods that superseded them; the gentrifying areas that are now selectively following them; and whatever comes after that. The accumulation and spread of industrial hazards is relentless and until we embrace this shared fate, the regulatory tools developed to safeguard us will remain blind to the fundamental processes shaping American cities.

We need broader recognition of these basic social facts of urban life. The road to more sustainable cities runs through these spaces, and the sooner we acknowledge that, the sooner we can go about reclaiming not just our cities but the environmental regulatory systems designed to ensure our collective well-being. To continue this line of work, we have been working with others in several related directions. With new machine-learning tools, we are expanding our database of hidden hazardous sites into new states and cities. With growing concerns over climate change and urban flooding we are integrating new environmental databases and risk projection models. The aim is to better understand where sites of relic industrial waste are likely to take on water that unearths and spreads their contaminants even further. Until, that is, we learn to better see and act on the hidden hazards beneath.

  • Scott Frickel is professor of sociology and environmental studies at Brown University.
  • James R. Elliott is professor and chair of sociology at Rice University.

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