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Brownfield vs. Superfund: Contaminated Sites Defined

Jane Marsh - February 4, 2024

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Where do all the trash, hazardous waste, and pollutants go once people get rid of them? This brings many to ask the difference between two common cleanup sites — what is a brownfield vs. a superfund? Explore the differences between how they operate, what they contain, who funds them, and what humanity can do to clean up its history of careless contamination.

What Is a Brownfield vs. Superfund?

Let’s dive into the details of each property umbrella.

trash on shoreline


The term “brownfield” refers to sites or projects. The EPA uses the term brownfield sites, referring to properties being redeveloped or reused after previous contamination. Renourishing and cleaning up these sites is the objective. Around 450,000 of them exist across the nation, and the EPA promises these benefits to participating communities:

  • Provides 183,817 jobs
  • Increases property values near brownfield sites
  • Improves tax revenue when cleanup completes

Brownfields should not be confused with greenfields. Brownfield cleanup relies on investments and taxes to restore land, and action usually involves the original property owners or local government — not federal. It also only refers to property that had infrastructure on it before. Greenfields have no development on them. They are typically pristine and ideal for investors seeking expansion. Other categories include:

  • Blackfields: A contaminated region that would garner no profit from restoration. 
  • Grayfields: Developed properties with fewer environmental concerns.
  • Bluefields: Water-based locations that have additional risk factors during repurposing.

Despite contamination, they are not usually dangerous to live near, though the concentration of toxic material makes them harmful in other ways. Now, how does Superfund differ from this setup?


This is another EPA qualifier, but it was inspired by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). “Superfund” is the nickname for CERCLA because the EPA gives money to qualifying abandoned properties to start fixing them.

These sites are labeled as threatening to life, which means they need greater attention. They endanger public health and environmental wellness, poisoning biodiversity and adding to the impacts of climate change. Each area is on the National Priorities List (NPL), and there are 1,336 total sites as of December 2023.

The EPA has the Superfund program, which tends to these locations. The objective of the project is similar to those restoring brownfield sites. Project initiators and funders want to clean and restore areas impacted by natural disasters, contamination, and other harmful influences. However, Superfund escalated to the federal level to correct mismanaged waste disposal and dumped remnants. What are the types of sites generally listed?

  • Military locations
  • Landfills
  • Manufacturing facilities
  • Toxic waste dumps
  • Mines
  • Processing plants
  • Chemical treatment plants
  • Metalworking sites

A Superfund area is dangerous to live around. It requires auditing and specific processes to clean up, whereas brownfield areas might have volunteers doing most of the heavy lifting. 

How Do Contaminated Sites Impact Climate Change?

It is a recent advancement that cleanup sites began considering climate adaptation as part of their process. Investors must consider the climate crisis to make the time and resources invested in fixing the sites worth it.


The EPA released a “climate-smart” brownfield manual to help sites execute operations with the climate crisis in mind. Mitigation strategies are essential because brownfield locations are often near tribal lands and marginalized communities that are disproportionately impacted by climate change. Not only does the contamination potentially influence the area already, but cleaning it up might leave it unintentionally vulnerable to climate change influences. 

Adapting the area makes it safer for all. Additionally, natural disasters catalyzed by the climate crisis could ruin cleanup progress if it can’t withstand severe weather events.

The guide also includes cleanup suggestions to make the process greener. For example, there is information about demolishing infrastructure in a green way while finding avenues to reuse those materials.


Contamination removal procedures might have left the sites susceptible to inevitable climate change influences despite being cleaner than before. Superfund recommendations for improved climate resilience include:

  • Making climate change projections for forecasting.
  • Implementing adaptation measures into remedy designs at the start.
  • Adding more adaptation measures after the project’s completion.

Observe this case study from a cleanup site in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. Allen Harbor landfill desperately needed help to repair its soil quality. To do this, workers built a shortline revetment and seawall to restore an area of wetland. They also banned shellfishing in the area. 

However, it isn’t enough to circumvent the fact the landfill is in a floodplain prone to myriad water and erosion concerns. Sea levels will rise because of climate change, so what can the site do to stay protected after all of the Superfund work? A specially made multimedia cap will outlast climate projects for rising sea levels while containing a drainage and soil layer to foster even more growth.

Success Stories, in Numbers

Conceptually, cleaning these areas is a wonderful idea to help human and wildlife health while giving the Earth back its land in prime condition. Has this been successful, and where can people notice the impacts of these programs?

  • Superfund cleanup sites result in a 25% reduction in congenital disabilities.
  • Many Superfund projects turned into renewable energy, producing 316 megawatts.
  • Over 450 sites have been deleted from the NPL.
  • Cleaning brownfields results in up to 57% less carbon emissions and better air quality.
  • Remedied brownfields produce up to 80% fewer pollutants.

As the projects continue, these numbers will only become more impressive. More regions in the United States will be cleaner and more resilient to a volatile climate.

organic waste and trash

Brownfield vs. Superfund, Explained

The primary differences between the two cleanup sites are sources of funding and contamination severity. The EPA oversees both to ensure everyone is safe undergoing environmental treatment while bringing these sites back to a usable condition. 

Everyone must support federal and state funding for these projects. Otherwise, communities will see the impacts seep into their everyday lives. Local wildlife may suffer, and public health crises will skyrocket. Spread awareness of how essential these efforts are to keep investments at historical highs.

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About the author

Jane Marsh

Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.