Lawrence reborn: A polluted mill town reclaims its future

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Lesly Melendez, deputy director of Groundwork Lawrence, stands near Oxford Park, a former brownfield site in Lawrence, Mass. Brownfields, properties at which redevelopment is stalled due to potential contamination, are predominantly found in poor, minority communities.
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Ramon Riquel spent the past seven years working at the Crown Cork & Seal factory in Lawrence, Mass. But 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.” Factory jobs have been streaming out of Lawrence for decades. As manufacturers have closed their doors, they have left behind a legacy of pollution and blight. This formerly thriving mill town has become a maze of empty, five-story, brick warehouses deemed brownfields, properties where redevelopment is stalled because of potential pollution. But in recent years, Lawrence has become a center for job training programs that prepare residents such as Mr. Riquel for careers in environmental remediation. Thanks to a patchwork of public and private education programs, many of Lawrence’s majority Hispanic residents have been able to learn a trade while helping to revitalize their community, transforming polluted eyesores into redevelopment opportunities. “Lawrence is going in a new direction,” says Ramon Quezada, who runs a staffing firm for environmental remediation workers. “And we’re helping with that.”

Explore the distribution of New England's brownfields with an interactive graphic here.

Why We Wrote This

Residents of New England's former mill towns often feel left behind after manufacturers leave town. But in Lawrence, Mass., locals have refused to let abandoned buildings and polluted landscapes define their future.

When Lesly Melendez recalls her walk to school as a child in Lawrence, Mass., she remembers the six-foot-tall fence cloaked in black cloth and decorated with caution tape. “Keep Out” signs warned passersby away from the so-called Dresden of Lawrence, the burned bones of the former Russell Paper Mill. 

“As a kid growing up and walking by things like that...,” Ms. Melendez trails off and sighs.

But her childhood neighborhood looks more appealing today. After years of stop-and-start cleanup, the Russell Mill site is now Oxford Site Park, a green welcome mat for the city. It’s an open space with a bike path. Long grasses bend in the wind, free from any fence. 

Why We Wrote This

Residents of New England's former mill towns often feel left behind after manufacturers leave town. But in Lawrence, Mass., locals have refused to let abandoned buildings and polluted landscapes define their future.

And this park may have helped the city grow opportunity as well as greenery. Lawrence, long one of New England’s poorest and most polluted communities, has become a center for public and nonprofit job training programs. They are certifying locals to clean up brownfields, properties where redevelopment is stalled because of potential pollution.

Job training grants from the Environmental Protection Agency in particular have enabled hundreds of local workers to boost their résumés, lead change where they live, and transform polluted eyesores into redevelopment opportunities.

The city’s success – and its collaborative approach – could offer a model for other low-income minority neighborhoods ridden with abandoned industrial sites. For Lawrence, brownfields like the Russell Paper Mill 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 the 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.”

Across the country, hot spots for pollution are disproportionately located in low-income communities such as Lawrence. For today’s young residents, often nonwhite and immigrant families, the legacy of pollution is a stark example of environmental injustice. (Explore the distribution of New England's brownfields with an interactive graphic here.)

Despite its size of only six square miles, Lawrence still has almost 50 brownfields – relics of its former life as a mill town. Yet locals refuse to let black-cloaked fences and caution tape define their future. Melendez, for one, is working to rid the city as much as possible of the symbols of decay she used to walk by. As deputy director of the local nonprofit Groundwork Lawrence, Melendez now helps convert brownfields 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 EPA’s estimation, the United States 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.

Though some designated brownfields have no serious contamination, others continue to pollute water, soil, or air for years. Either way, a brownfield designation requires a costly assessment, and possible cleanup, before it can be repurposed.

This requirement is often cost-prohibitive for developers, especially in communities with shrinking populations and thin profit margins for businesses.

These state and locally managed properties may seem inconsequential compared with the country’s federally run 1,338 Superfund sites, which are typically more serious sites of contamination, such as landfills or mines. But the sheer number of community 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 in Medford, Mass., 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. It hardly resembles the prosperous industrial center it once was.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
The Merrimack River helped small towns such as Lawrence become industrial centers in the late 1800s, drawing mill companies to the nearby source of water power. Today, many of the mills are brownfields – potentially contaminated sites that are costly to remediate or redevelop.

Mill companies flocked to New England towns in the 19th century because of their proximity to water power. And Lawrence, located at the confluence of two rivers and a canal, became a hub for both industry and immigrants.

But everything changed in the 1970s and 1980s when 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 Sousa, 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 it’s shrinking and decaying.”

‘Work of the future’

Local resident Ramon Riquel moved to Lawrence from Puerto Rico a decade ago and spent the past seven years working at the Crown Cork & 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.”

As industry languished, the immigrant community once reliant on these sites has continued to grow. More than three-quarters of the city’s population is Hispanic, and nearly 25 percent lives below the poverty level. The average unemployment rate in Lawrence over the past year was 6.5 percent – almost twice the statewide average.

As deputy director of the Merrimack Valley Workforce Investment Board (MVWIB), Susan Almono spends a lot of time thinking about the city's many job seekers, what the industries of Lawrence's future might be, “and how to bring them together to really drive help, drive economic development.”

One of the area’s ripest industries, Ms. Almono realized, was environmental reclamation of the city’s industrial relics, so she applied for a grant from the EPA.

Founded originally as the Brownfields Job Training Program in 1998, the EPA’s Environmental Workforce Development and Job Training Grant program has since awarded almost $64 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 more than 17,000 individuals nationwide and placed about three-quarters 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 around 80,000 people, stands out nationally in remediation employment. The 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 who do not have the resources to pay for a private program.

“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.”

Before earning its 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 $12 minimum wage.

The key to MVWIB’s success, says Almono, has been the program's flexibility. After the first training program, for example, she realized they could expand beyond remediation-specific jobs like lead and asbestos abatement to offer intensive truck driving training.

Almono says they hope to update the program again following Lawrence’s deadly gas explosions in September. Locals see the explosions as yet another example of failing infrastructure and environmental injustice in Lawrence.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Susan Almono of the Merrimack Valley Workforce Investment Board speaks with Eleazer Vasquez, a current trainee in the board's Environmental Technical Training Program. The program certifies participants in environmental remediation jobs such as lead and asbestos abatement or truck driving.

Riquel now has his 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.”

Finding pride in home

Despite imposing numerous funding cuts for environmental programs, President Trump has remained supportive of both the EPA's Superfund and brownfield programs, calling them “absolutely essential” and increasing funding.

“Brownfields have always done well regardless of the administration in power,” says Professor De Sousa. “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.”

Although safety precautions have improved drastically over the past 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.

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.

And like Melendez, Quezada decided to do something about it. Seeing all the work that needed to be done in New England and so many neighbors without jobs, Quezada co-founded Labor on Site, a staffing firm for environmental remediation workers, in the early 2000s. 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 the firm’s efforts resulted in $4.5 million in payroll, mainly to Lawrence workers.

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

Explore the distribution of New England's brownfields with an interactive graphic here.

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