One Prescription for Healthier Brownfield Communities – A Community Clinic Please!

By Ann Carroll

The EPA brownfields program started in the mid-1990s, but as the program evolved over the last decade, we learned that the abandoned gas station, mine site or vacant scrap yard may be only one of the many issues facing communities.  In fact, many brownfield communities are also medically underserved areas. This U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) designation means that there aren’t enough doctors, dentists, mental health or other health professionals to provide needed services.  This is especially problematic because many of these communities may be affected by legacy pollution that was left behind when plants closed down. Residents in these communities may lack vital services like vaccinations or preventive care that is important to disease management for diabetes, asthma or other chronic conditions and care needs.

Opening of the Providence Community Health Centers

For one community, this reality changed with a new clinic opening on a former brownfield.  On July 16, I joined some of the EPA New England brownfields program team members in Providence, RI, along with community members, investors, and elected officials to celebrate the opening of the Providence Community Health Centers (PCHC).  PCHC is now the largest Rhode Island healthcare provider for women and children, serving one in four Providence residents. This new clinic integrates care for children and adults with behavioral health, a Women, Infants and Children’s (WIC) nutrition program, and provides services to address asthma, diabetes, podiatry and dermatology, all under one roof.

There will also be a pharmacy opening next door, which will make filling prescriptions easy. The health center is located on the Federated Lithography Site, a former historic mill, which dates back to the 1880s. Brownfield grants totaling $600,000 funded the removal of lead paint and asbestos from around the 4.5 acre site and attracted an additional $40 million for construction and redevelopment.  Historic preservation and select demolition also allowed for the creation of a historic hybrid health care clinic that meets LEED ‘green building’ certification. Renovation of the remaining mill buildings will create doctors offices for Lifespan, an integrated health provider linked to Brown University.

The project also created 125 seasonal jobs during the two years of work. Nearly 25% of demolition and construction dollars supported local minority/women business enterprises and labor.  In a neighborhood where over 70% of children and 35% of families live below the poverty line, these jobs were especially important!

This seems like a prescription many brownfield communities would like filled.  Let’s learn from this Providence community and help Providence and other rural and urban communities reverse environmental pollution legacies to create healing today and a healthier tomorrow.  You can read more about this story in this New York Times article. Also, visit this website to see if you live in a medically underserved area, and click here to find out more about programs that HHS offers to medically underserved areas.

About the author: Ann Carroll has a science and public health background and has worked on environmental health issues in the US and internationally for close to 30 years and with the EPA’s Office of Brownfields and Land Revitalization for the last ten years.  She helps communities assess and clean brownfields and plan for their safe reuse.  Ann is working on a doctorate in environmental health as a  Fellow at Johns Hopkins University, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Center for a Livable Future.