The Overbrook Environmental Education Center in West Philadelphia (Philadelphia Tribune photo)
By Ayana Jones
PHILADELPHIA — Federal environmental protection authorities are viewing the successful transformation of a formerly contaminated site in West Philadelphia as a model for transforming brownfields.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council Superfund Task Force Group recently visited the Overbrook Environmental Education Center, which sits on the site of a former quarry. The goal of the group’s visit was to develop recommendations for the EPA on how best to transform brownfield sites.
“The Task Force was excited to see the work that Jerome Shabazz and the Center have done in West Philadelphia,” an EPA spokesperson said in an e-mailed statement. Shabazz is the executive director of JASTECH Development Services, the company that developed the education center.
“These site visits allowed the Superfund Task Force Workgroup to interact with community members and individuals who are directly affected and involved with projects at these sites. Through this visit, the NEJAC members were to able gain insight about issues, challenges and opportunities related to the Center.”
Shabazz said the Superfund often deals with bigger brownfield sites. Brownfields are properties where development or redevelopment is complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant.
“What we were able to demonstrate here with our work at Overbrook is that there are smaller sites that not only need support with the cleanup of the potential hazards, but that there is a life after the cleanup that is even more vital for urban communities,” Shabazz said.
“This particular working group was specifically put in place to look at how to broaden the array of access to resources and opportunities in these sort of vulnerable communities. They wanted to identify what those barriers look like and what are the opportunities related to cleanup and reuse. Our message was this is an opportunity for a different kind of strategy, working toward removing barriers to getting people involved in environmental issues and how to help them clean up their communities.”
The 0.83-acre former quarry site in the 6100 block of Lancaster Avenue was repurposed to house a center offering programs on environmental education, arts and literacy, and public health for the community. It also features green architecture, outdoor biology labs, orchards and a bio-retention system that collects storm water.
Plans are in the works to turn the center’s adjacent property into a training facility for sewershed management, watershed management, land management and urban agriculture.
OECC’s work has been supported and funded by the William Penn Foundation, Academy of Natural Sciences, LISC Philadelphia and The Nature Conservancy.
Julie Ulrich, director of urban conservation for The Nature Conservancy, was on hand for the task force’s visit. The organization is supporting OEEC’s expansion into offering training programs.
“It’s important that we show to the EPA that we are able to support this type of work,” Ulrich said. “What we’re doing here today has a national significance in my opinion because the EPA and other federal agencies have the power and the authority to better fund and bring resources to these type of sites.”
“So rather than just cleaning up a contaminated site, and that’s it, we’re really trying to focus on what is life after clean up look like,” she continued. “Life after clean up has so much potential.”
Ayana Jones is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.
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