Early Industrial History

Burlington’s early industrial history involved lumber milling and treatment, woodworking, boatbuilding, and machine shops. Heating was by wood and coal, lighting by kerosene and gas, and there was no solid waste management system. Rail was evolving as the dominant mode of transport, and trolley cars served the major corridors in the City.

Accordingly, one can find residues in Burlington’s soils from wood preservatives, paints, solvents, coal tar (a by-product of coal gasification), petroleum products, and a mix of substances associated with rail transport. Other sources of contamination that can be found include dry cleaning fluid, coolants, and other compounds from spills, chemicals left from tanneries, slaughterhouses, and rendering operations, arsenic from wood processing, lead from paint and gasoline, and a broad array of chemicals and pesticides left over from years of unregulated use.

As the City grew, the Old North End became home to distinct neighborhoods of immigrant workers attracted to employment at local woolen mills and on the waterfront. In each neighborhood, one might find small food stores offering gasoline, rendering plants, tanneries, metalworking shops, automotive sales and repair shops, drycleaners, scrap yards, boatbuilding and repair shops, roofers, woodworking and furniture manufacturing: all enterprises that utilized petroleum products, solvents, and toxic chemicals. In many cases, floor drains carried contamination into a drywell or through the City’s stormwater system into Lake Champlain.

Over time, Burlington’s landscape was also being physically changed. Once a long sand crescent, fill was placed along the shoreline of Lake Champlain from Oakledge to North Beach creating over 60 Acres of “new” land. The filled lands evolved from a lumber port, to a railyard, and in the mid-twentieth century, a bulk petroleum storage facility. At it’s peak, 83 above ground storage tanks were located in Burlington. Through a court action and series of acquisitions, the City now owns most of the lands impacted by this history, removed all the above ground tanks, and has been undertaking a multi-year clean up and restoration effort.

Ravines, gulleys, and streams across the City were filled in over the years with rubble, trash, fly ash, and fill from unknown locations. West of Pine street, a barge canal was dug out, and has changed configurations over time. Large amounts of sawdust can still be found in Pine Street soils from lumber processing for shipment via barge through the Champlain Canal system to points south.

In the early and mid twentieth century, heavier industry began to establish in Burlington, especially in the South End. A manufactured gas plant on Pine Street deposited coal tar sludge on it’s property, eventually leeching into the groundwater and creating the Pine Street Barge Canal Superfund Site. General Electric, Bell Aircraft and it’s successors manufactured military armaments and hardware, creating a landfill polluted with solvent sand metal tailings, now closed, capped, and being monitored. Smaller manufacturing sites created localized pockets of solvent and petroleum contamination.

The rail yard likely has contamination in the subsurface soils, dating back to the mid-1800’s. A series of actions in recent years reduced the hazards at the site, but any excavation in the future may reveal contamination. Similarly, there are a number of properties in the Pine Street and Flynn Avenue corridors that have subsurface contamination, known and unknown, that would come to light if redevelopment and excavation took place.

Hazardous substances can arrive by air, such as mercury, others are naturally occurring, like arsenic. High levels of lead can be found along the drip lines of older homes from lead paint, and along edges of roadways from leaded gas exhaust.

Recent History:  The Cleanup Begins

In 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was signed into law and the Environmental Protection Agency created. The environmental movement of the 1970’s, the Love Canal disaster and subsequent creation of Superfund further increased public awareness about hazardous materials and potential impacts on environmental and human health.

Since the enactment of NEPA, federal standards regulating the vast majority of pollutants have evolved and expanded, as has the myriad regulations that attempt to control the manufacture, management, documentation, transport, and disposal of hazardous materials.

Over time, additional federal regulations specific to landfills, hazardous waste management, pesticide regulation, petroleum releases, and other areas have been created. A system has evolved where USEPA maintains broad authority over the regulation of hazardous materials, while individual states enact environmental laws (based on NEPA principles), manage and take enforcement actions on hazardous sites. While USEPA maintains the right to directly regulate any contaminated site, it generally will only become involved if a site is designated for Superfund status, is extremely high profile, or in response to citizen complaints about a state’s inaction on a contaminated site.

NEPA created the “polluter pays” principle that still guides federal and state environmental law. This principle means that the generator of any hazardous material that could cause damage to human health and the environment is responsible for the that material from “cradle to grave”. Thus, when these materials are released into the environment, the party who released the substance (regardless of intent or date of release) is not absolved of liability when a property changes hands over time.

While very effective in theory, it can be difficult or impossible to implement the “polluter pays” principle. Many contaminated properties have chains of title going back many years, with multiple owners and unclear records as to the source of hazardous materials releases. In many cases it can be difficult, if not impossible, to find responsible parties and force them to perform cleanups. To further complicate matters, owners sometimes have no idea about contamination on their property until excavation takes place or an assessment is performed, usually in advance of a property sale. The costs and liabilities involved with cleanup are often beyond the means of property owners, and responsible parties impossible to find. As a result, there are of thousands of underutilized, stigmatized, and/or vacant “brownfield” properties across the country.

Contamination disproportionately impacts low income neighborhoods across the country. Thus brownfields redevelopment has implications reaching beyond economics: too often, those least able to respond to contamination issues have to deal with vacant lots and blighted neighborhoods. Compounding this problem, it is extremely difficult to reverse trends of disinvestment when city planners, developers, and community leaders are faced with extremely expensive pollution assessments and cleanups before development can occur.

In the past decade, a nationwide effort has been underway to reclaim brownfields, and since 1996, the City of Burlington has been aggressively addressing this issue with Environmental Protection Agency monies and other resources.


For more information, contact:

Gillian Nanton, Assistant Director of CEDO, 802-865-7179, or 
Kirsten Merriman-Shapiro, Project and Policy Specialist, 802-865-7284