Public Policy Archives
Urban Sprawl and Brownfields Letter to the House of Representatives
June 9, 1997
We write to you to urge expeditious passage of legislation that can help many communities across the United States clean up and revitalize their “brownfields” areas. We are greatly encouraged by the bipartisan efforts to craft legislative remedies that can help clean up the environmental damage to these sites while renewing the social and economic vitality of the affected neighborhoods. A brownfield clean up program coupled with an economic development program targeted to the affected communities offers a genuine opportunity for environmental, economic and community revitalization in low income communities.
As you consider legislation, we want to share with you principles based on our perspectives as religious leaders and pastors.
Disproportionate Burden on the Poor
Our interest in the brownfields issue arises from the Catholic community’s pastoral experiences in and service to communities affected by brownfields. Many brownfield sites are in urban and rural communities of the poor and minorities. As the Catholic bishops noted in our 1991 pastoral statement, Renewing the Earth, “[the poor’s] lands and neighborhoods are more likely to be polluted or to host toxic waste sites, their water to be undrinkable, their homes contaminated with lead, their children to be harmed. Too often, the structure of sacrifice involved in environmental remedies seems to exact a high price from the poor and from workers.” It is this disproportionate burden borne by these communities that lies at the heart of our concern. It is fundamentally unjust and needs correction.
Protecting the Community’s Health
Pope John Paul II has called the “right to a safe environment” a human right, which means that the flourishing of the human community is tied directly to a healthy and safe environment. Nature depends upon humans to be responsible stewards, but humans depend upon their natural environment for life itself, economic survival, health, and attractive surroundings. Any clean up effort must first protect the health of the entire surrounding community with particular attention given to protecting the most vulnerable populations especially the elderly and children. Special protection also must be given to cleanup workers and those who will work in future industries in these sites.
We recognize that at times there will be inadequate or uncertain scientific information as to the full extent of the health hazards in many of these situations. However, we urge that special precautions be made to set standards which protect the community and its vulnerable populations from future additional hazardous exposure.
Enhancing Human Dignity through Participation
The affected communities have a right and a duty to participate in the development of cleanup and subsequent economic development plans. Participation in public life, both in its civic and political dimensions, is fundamental to helping people achieve their human dignity as well as maintaining and enhancing the cohesion of the social fabric of society. In our economic pastoral, Economic Justice for All, we characterized this right and responsibility this way: basic justice demands the establishment of minimum levels of participation in the life of the human community for all persons. Consequently, exclusion from social, political, and economic life is incompatible with the fundamental dignity of the human person.
All too often, the poor, minorities and people in the affected communities and neighborhoods do not have a seat or membership on planning boards, zoning commissions and other relevant regulatory bodies. They also are not often present in any significant percentage on corporate boards. A balance must be struck among the various stakeholders so that a more collaborative approach can become the basis of decision making. Business, government and the communities need to become partners in crafting appropriate solutions and in monitoring progress.
The proposed cleanup of brownfields should involve not just elected officials and representatives from the business community, but also people from the affected communities who can act as stakeholders planning their own futures in a way that will best serve their social, economic and environmental needs. It also should involve providing these communities with the requisite information to make informed judgements, respecting their right to know. However, it requires appropriate legislation to guarantee participation of informed people from the affected communities.
Job Creation and Training for Economic
Third, the redevelopment and revitalization of brownfield sites should give job preference to affected community residents. The clean up of brownfields can be a great source of economic redevelopment for many blighted urban and rural communities. However, without a special effort to provide the training and outreach necessary to provide jobs for those in the affected neighborhood, a significant opportunity might be lost. By creating employment opportunities within these neighborhoods, brownfields cleanup could both provide employment for the poor without access to transportation, and be a first step in formulating solutions for regional urban sprawl problems.
Therefore, we strongly support initiatives to establish special training and recruitment programs to provide affected neighborhood residents with the requisite job skills to assume the jobs in the newly created industries that will be built on the rehabilitated sites. We recognize that the private sector as well as local governments may need special incentives to assist in the brownfields clean up program. We support the use of tax abatements, training assistance programs, tax credits and loan guarantees and industrial development grants for infrastructure for local governments and the private sector, but these incentives must be tied to the hiring from the local affected communities.
We are encouraged by the bipartisan efforts to propose solutions to the challenge of cleaning up brownfields and making them a source of community, social and economic revitalization. Not only can this effort remove blight and bring about a healthier environment, but it also can serve as a model for solving the devastating unemployment and underemployment problems in many cities and rural communities. We urge you to pass legislation incorporating the principles we have outlined as rapidly as possible.
Thank you for the opportunity to present our views to you on this important matter.
Most Reverend William Skystad
Bishop of Spokane
Chairman, Committee on Domestic Policy