Free soil testing for city-owned gardens and lots through brownfields grant

About 20 community gardens on publicly-owned land could receive a free soil assessment from the City in the next two years, to find out if there are potential contaminants in the ground, help urban farmers manage the risk, and support safe food production.

The assessment will look into the history of the sites and test the soil of gardens or city-owned vacant lots that are suitable for urban agriculture or green stormwater infrastructure projects. The work will be funded by a $200,000 Brownfields Assessment grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency received by the City of Philadelphia in October 2015.

“We kept getting questions about soil safety, whether it was safe to grow in the soil in Philadelphia, and we didn’t feel that we had the answers,” said Sarah Wu, deputy director for planning at the Office of Sustainability, one of the agencies that applied to the grant. “Now we can know what soil we’re growing in. So if you find that there’s no contamination in it, you can erase your fears. And if you find contamination, there is EPA money available to apply for remediation. So basically, if we find a problem we can fix it.”

Elisa Ruse-Esposito, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation FarmPhilly Program Manager, explains that people have concerns because the soil can present pollutants such as lead or other heavy metals caused by years of human activity. In general, these toxins don’t contaminate the food growing in the soil, but can affect the health of the gardeners working with the dirt by ingestion, either breathing or putting something in their mouth. The assessment will also help figure out whether farmers might be exposed to these contaminants.

“A lot of problems can be fixed by changing your growing practices,” explained Ruse-Esposito. “If you change the way you grow, you can alleviate potential exposure.”

According to the City, most gardens will be safe for gardening as long as they use safe practices such as wearing gloves and washing hands, washing fruits and vegetables from the garden before eating them, growing in raised or mounded beds, and bringing in clean soil. During this last year, the City offered 45 workshops and five garden builds to raise awareness of and develop tools to support soil safety best practices for growing in potentially contaminated soil. Funding for that effort was part of a $150,000 grant received by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health (DPH), in partnership with the Office of Sustainability (OOS), Philadelphia Land Bank, and Philadelphia Parks & Recreation (PPR) from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a federal public health division under the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Most cities have to rely on following these safer practices, explained Ruse-Esposito, but this new brownfields grant will allow the city to find out, for the first time, what’s in gardens’ soil, saving farmers money before they do the investment.

“We don’t want to make it unnecessarily expensive for people in a city with a 26% poverty rate to grow food in their neighborhoods,” added Wu.

The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority received the EPA grant, since it owns land that is or could be used for urban agriculture, but the initiative it’s implemented by a team made up of PRA, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, Philadelphia Water, and the Office of Sustainability.

“This is the first time that these partners have worked together on a project, but we’re trying to make it more usual,” said Wu. “And, to my knowledge, this is the first time an EPA Brownfields Assessment grant is given to a project where the goal is urban agriculture.”

The EPA Brownfields Program aims to assess, safely clean up, and sustainably reuse brownfield sites. A brownfield site, according to EPA, is “real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.”

On average, the assessment per garden costs $10,000. During the first phase, professionals will look into the site’s past uses and owners to find possible environmental issues and conduct a soil screening for heavy metal contaminants. Depending on the results, Phase two will involve actual soil testing. The grant will also be used to develop a site inventory and community outreach.

“Everyone sort of thinks that all soil in urban places is dirty,” said Wu. “But if we do 20 assessments in different parts of the city, with different stories, and nothing so terrible comes out, the hope is that there won’t be that psychological barrier that dirt in Philly is dirty.”

Over the last year the grant team has been working in 5 pilot sites: Penn Knox Garden in Germantown, Brewerytown Community Garden, La Casa de Mi Familia in Fairhill, PRIDE Garden between Port Richmond and Harrowgate, and a garden at 25th and Tasker in Point Breeze.

Currently the City is looking for applicants to receive free soil screening and testing, but because of EPA requirements, it only applies for city-owned sites and not for private property or sites owned by the School District of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Housing Authority, and the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation.

“Now our challenge is how to get resources for the sites we don’t own,” said Wu. The team is particularly interested in funding larger parcels that benefit a lot of gardeners, and will prioritize places where there’s less food access. The Philadelphia Food Policy Advisory Council website has a link to application forms.  

“It would be very challenging if we find really contaminate sites,” said Wu. “But again, is better to find it that either let people continue to grow on it or to let people start growing on it.”

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