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Sarah Kanouse, Banners advertising the Candelas Development adjacent to the former Rocky Flats Plant, 2 June 2014, Flickr

Issue Brief

Brownfield Housing and the Front Range

The Rocky Mountain Front Range exemplifies Superfund and brownfield reuse of former military land and its ongoing challenges to public health and stewardship. Brownfields are reused land or property complicated by the (potential) presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant. Such land may stem from former military occupation and its hazardous remains, or, more generally, from industry’s contaminated properties. The overwhelming majority of brownfield sites are not Superfund sites, The lowest estimate of brownfield sites ranged between 130,000 to 425,000 and at nearly 100 times the number of Superfund sites. U.S. General Accounting Office, "Community Development: Reuse of Urban Industrial Sites," RCED-95-172 (1995), accessed July 15, 2020, https://www.gao.gov/products/RCED-95-172.
which are fewer in number
and involve more severe contamination than brownfields—although the latter category has not been thoroughly assessed. Brownfield legislation has sought to amend CERCLA requirements and roll back liability to encourage companies to invest in developing the U.S.’s plethora of brownfield sites, in the process tying environmental health and waste management to the goal of supporting land remediation and economic redevelopment.

With the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and numerous states passing legislation that makes it more lucrative for developers to build on contaminated property, metropolitan and regional planning authorities now consider sites with environmental health risks a priority—rather than liability—for redevelopment: such properties offer urban territory for in-migration, construction, and employment. However, redevelopment costs of land with unknown contamination can be difficult to estimate due to uncertain future liabilities. In response, brownfield programs and Superfund land remediation projects have developed measures to mitigate investor risk through contracts, treaties, and liability release instruments that contain investor responsibility and immunize private industry from potentially negative consequences of land conversions.

Standards of cleanup are tied to future-determined land use, per a risk-based understanding of anticipated use. Federal- and state-level cleanup programs typically release participants from liability for environmental damage if criteria are followed and the accepted cleanup standards are implemented. Because different end uses of the site require distinct levels or tiers of remediation standards, land recycling efforts enlist remediation options that range from minor remediation needed for limited human contact, such as future use as a parking lot or park, to widespread waste removal from the site and/or high-tech on-site containment necessary to support future premium housing and infrastructure. Governance of the remaining on-site contamination hinges around what is considered safe levels of risk based on the type of land reuse and ongoing hazards, and often involves physical barriers—such as capping or paving contaminated soil—to prevent human exposure.

While housing was not an initial focus of brownfields legislation, cities now frequently look to such lands to solve deficiencies in affordable urban housing. However, there remain grave concerns about determining safe levels of cleanup and the reliability of subsequent protective measures for brownfield housing. Developers typically remove the upper level of soil and replace it with clean soil, placing an impervious cap over it to prevent exposure to arsenic, lead, chromium, or any other remaining contamination capable of reaching the surface. In some cases, engineered systems may be constructed to pump out and/or monitor contaminated materials from the soil, such as the capture and treatment of contaminated groundwater or noxious odors. Property use is usually restricted, proscribing what activities can take place across the site, such as the planting of food crops on the grounds. Deed restrictions and city zoning regulations lay out the conditions by which landowners can disturb and reinstate soil caps, such as restricting fence posts and other surface markers from piercing below certain depths. Even with institutional controls in place, brownfield housing pose numerous problems from a public health perspective: improperly built protections, lack of enforcement of deeds and site monitoring, combinations of failed physical and institutional barriers, and so forth. An involved public can function as a site steward, particularly needed in a housing project to monitor the site officially or unofficially, yet the economic calculus of brownfield redevelopment often restricts a knowing and involved public.

The push to redevelop former military bases into large-scale housing projects along the Rocky Mountain Front Range and Denver’s suburbs exemplifies the often contradictory mission of brownfield and Superfund land revitalization projects that contain liability for private industry gains yet claim to protect human health and offer community benefits. Over the last few decades, metropolitan areas and suburban sprawl have encroached on many bases and their surrounding buffer zones. Between 1988 to 1995, the U.S. military has decommissioned hundreds of major and minor military bases in a process known as base realignment and closures (BRACs). In many cases, the Department of Defense (DOD) determined the land “to be in excess” and sold it to local development authorities. These bases became attractive options to city or government divisions at a time when buildable land with infrastructure and entitlements in or near urban areas was in short supply. Some architectural and planning firms have now developed subspecialties in military base reuse and design, while certain housing builders—through subdivisions or joint ventures—increasingly seek large-scale land deals based on a frontier imagination of high returns and measures that mitigate investor risk in exchange for so-called community benefits packages, such as the inclusion of low-income housing. Whether falling under Superfund or lesser brownfield regulations, such land has typically required some form of remediation due to soil, water, and/or structural contamination—and in some cases massive removal of waste through off-site removal and on-site decontamination procedures and technical monitoring systems.

For example, Denver’s Lowry Air Force Base, following its closure in 1994, was redeveloped into several mixed-use neighborhoods and is now nationally recognized for its sustainable development efforts. Formerly a bombing range in the 1930s, then a landfill in the 1960s, and declared a Superfund site in 1980, the 1,800-acre site in racially diverse Aurora-Denver is now home to more than 4,000 new residential units, a college campus, business park, commercial section, and hundreds of acres of parkland. Home construction was halted several times due to the unearthing of vials thought to contain mustard nerve agents as well as asbestos-contaminated soil—the latter of which was verified through testing the properties of occupied homes. Alan Berger, Drosscape: Wasting Land in Urban America (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006), 69.Contaminated plumes of groundwater with the toxic compound trichloroethylene (TCE was used in degreasers during aircraft-maintenance operations) were found running beneath the development and require constant monitoring to ensure that TCE does not become gaseous and permeate homes through the soils under basements. Purportedly due to the extensive remediation costs and other overruns, the original plan to set aside housing for the homeless were ignored at Lowry, prompting Catholic Charities and Colorado Coalition for the Homeless to sue. The resulting settlement with the Lowry Redevelopment Authority—the master developer—guaranteed that housing would be designated for seventy families in an existing 92-unit apartment complex on the former base as well as in a new 120-unit apartment community.

The Rocky Mountain Arsenal, located near the economically- and racially-diverse northern Denver location of Commerce City, similarly hosts housing subdivisions beset with contamination but also more affordable price tags within Denver’s surging homebuyer market. Large housing projects abut the northern edge of the former chemical weapons production facility, while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administers the majority of the arsenal land as part of the national wildlife refuge system. The internal former industrial area could not be remediated for safe reuse except as a nature refuge, which limits human contact with the environment. The arsenal wildlife refuge now offers charismatic species like the bald eagle and the reintroduced bison as local amenities that upgrade property values, even as drinking water must be trucked in and delivered due to groundwater and aquifer contamination.

Under the same wildlife refuge administrative umbrella, the former Rocky Flat plutonium production facility northwest of Denver now serves as a wildlife refuge with housing developments encroaching upon the property line of the notoriously controversial plant. Candelas and other housing subdivisions have pioneered waiver forms that homebuyers must sign indicating they are aware of the site’s “nuclear energy” history. Residents and activists allege that developers have provided little to no resources on the area’s nuclear weapons production, ongoing and uncertain radionuclide contamination by air, water, ground, or awareness of nonhuman “hot spots,” such as local mule deer who have shown traces of plutonium and americium when tested.


Berger, Alan. Drosscape: Wasting Land in Urban America. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006. See pages 64-75.

Candelas Glows. "Why the Candelas Development Is Controversial," January 10, 2019. Accessed June 10, 2020.

Durham, Nicolene. "Toxic Suburbia: Fantastic Rocky Flats Vistas, Plutonium Breezes." Colorado Independent, January 3, 2014. Accessed July 24, 2020.

Farnsworth, Christina. “Mission Possible.” Builder, September 9, 2002. Accessed July 15, 2020.

Greenberg, Michael. “Should Housing Be Built on Former Brownfield Sites?” American Journal of Public Health 92, no. 5 (2002): 703-705.

Havlick, David. Bombs Away: Militarization, Conservation, and Ecological Restoration. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2018.

Krupar, Shiloh. Hot Spotter’s Report: Military Fables of Toxic Waste. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

U.S. General Accounting Office. "Community Development: Reuse of Urban Industrial Sites," RCED-95-172. 1995. Accessed July 15, 2020.

Wernstedt, Kris and Robert Hersh. “’Through a Lens Darkly’—Superfund Spectacles on Public Participation at Brownfield Sites.” Risk: Health, Society & Environment 153 (1998): 153-173.

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