Brownfield: A property that re-use of is complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.
In 2004, the Rhizome Collective was donated a 9.8 acre brownfield in the Montopolis neighborhood. The property served as legally operated municipal landfill from 1967 to 1970, and was illegally dumped on for approximately fifteen years following the closure of the landfill. We received a $200,000 EPA Brownfield Cleanup Award to clean the property. From January 2005 to July 2006, we removed 680 tires, 10.1 tons and 36.5 cubic yards of trash, and 31.6 tons of recyclable metal from the site. Huge amounts of wood scrap and concrete were diverted from landfills and used for erosion control on site. A 1,380 foot fence was constructed along the southern edge of the property to prevent further dumping. The process of turning the brownfield into an Ecological Justice Education Park has begun!
The project began in 2002 when the City of Austin Brownfields Redevelopment Office told us about a property that had 5,000 cubic yards of illegally dumped debris on it. The cost of removing the mountain of debris on the property would be greater than the amount that could be made back by selling the property afterwards. The owner of the property was therefore looking for a nonprofit group to donate it to. We were intrigued by the opportunity and went to see it firsthand.
Initially, the collective was daunted by the amount of work that the cleanup would entail- giant concrete boulders were intertwined with rebar, metal scrap, tires, asphalt shingles, and household trash. However, we were able to see beyond the towering garbage pile, and envisioned creating an ecological justice park in a beautiful urban greenspace.
We decided to apply for an EPA Brownfield Cleanup Award. The grant provides federal funding to clean contaminated properties. In our application we outlined a vision to use innovative sustainable technologies to clean the debris from the site. Instead of just moving the trash to another landfill, it would be utilized to build infrastructure for the park we wished to create.
The Rhizome Collective received many strong letters of support from the Austin community, who knew and valued our work over the years. In June of 2004, we learned that we had been chosen to receive the highly competitive grant. EPA officials later told Rhizome the commitment to sustainable technologies distinguished their proposal from the many others.
The cleanup officially began in January 2005 when the multi-person crew and generous volunteers took on the formidable task of taking down the 25 foot tall by 600 foot long sheer wall of debris located on the site. A giant jigsaw puzzle that needed to be undone piece by piece, crew members carefully dismantled this monolithic mountain of trash. Years of illegal contractor dumping created a mosaic of mangled roofing tin wrapped around the few trees that dared to grow up through the heaps of rotting wood scraps and crumbling asphalt shingles. Massive blocks of concrete were balanced perilously on compacted mounds of household junk. Twisted iron rebar rods protruded from the concrete chunks on all sides, holding the massive cliff face of debris together like an industrial root system.
The rebar pieces needed to be cut one by one with an oxygen-acetylene torch to reach the trash pinned beneath. Constant vigilance was required to ensure each cut did not trigger an avalanche of concrete boulders.
A tractor powered by vegetable oil played a critical role. Expediting the cleanup, it extracted tires and tangled unidentifiable metal objects, and pulled down concrete blocks.
All debris was separated into piles based on its potential to be recycled: metal, asphalt shingles, wood scraps, tires, concrete, glass and mixed trash. All the metal and glass were taken to local recycling facilities. Some wood was put through a chipper/shredder to create mulch for trails while some was used as erosion control to fill in a badly eroded gully. Concrete was consolidated and kept on site as a legal fill to be used in building infrastructure for the park in the future. The disposal of tires was donated by the City of Austin Solid Waste Services. We searched for a local recycler of asphalt shingles, but found none. The only option was to landfill the shingles along with the mixed household trash pulled of the pile. A single barrel of an unidentified petroleum-based liquid was removed by a specialist from the City of Austin Solid Waste Services. A metal barrel that was mired in the pond on the brownfield was discovered to have been rusted through and its contents presumed emptied long ago. The barrel was recycled with the other metal debris.
As there is no power on the site, combinations of biofuel generators and solar panels were set up to power equipment. Other examples of sustainable technologies employed included chainsaws inoculated with fungi spore laden oil (used to assist in the degradation of residual pollutants), and the construction of floating islands made from recovered soda bottles. The islands create habitat for diverse aquatic life forms that bioremediate toxins flowing through the retention pond on the property.
The Collective also arranged community meetings in order to share their plans for the land with the neighbors and to receive the community’s feedback. It was very important to us to have the input of the local community. These meetings took place in the Rhizome Collective’s warehouse, as well as less formal spaces such as neighborhood picnics and barbeques on the property.
Throughout the cleanup, we collaborated closely with the City of Austin. Along with the Brownfields Redevelopment Office and Solid Waste Services, we coordinated large scale volunteer cleanups on several different weekends. Solid Waste Services donated the disposal of unrecyclable materials collected at these cleanups. During KAB Clean Sweep 2005, 6.1 tons of trash was collected from the Rhizome Brownfield alone!
The cleanup received considerable attention from local media. Rhizome members were interviewed by newspapers and television news crews.
The cleanup attracted the interest and participation of students and professors from the University of Texas in Austin. A graduate level class on brownfields chose the Rhizome Brownfield as their local case study. Each student did an extensive report on one aspect of reusing the property.
The attention the cleanup project received led to the Rhizome Collective being invited to speak about our successes at the EPA’s Region 6 Annual Conference, and at the EPA’s National Brownfields Conference. At both events, Rhizome received much praise and positive feedback for their work.