Dirty Talk: Brownfields and Contaminated Lands

What feelings do you evoke when you think of the word “brownfields?” Contaminated sites are often synonymous to barren, unproductive eye-sores. However, these sites hold tremendous potential to be transformed into assets that could propel Hawaii into a clean energy future.

With an already finite acreage of land competing for multiple alternative usages – agriculture, housing, recreational and preservation to list a few – contaminated sites offer an attractive substitute for renewable energy development.

At the federal level, brownfields describe a real property that expansion, redevelopment or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutants or contaminant. A number of federal and state programs exist that incentivize cleanup and redevelopment of these sites. In Hawaii alone, 3,263 sites have been identified. Historical sites of sugar mills, automotive repair shops, dry cleaners, incinerators, wood treatment facilities, metal plating plants and industrial areas account for the majority of the portfolio.

If you wear a Hawaiian shirt in Hawaii, is it just called a shirt? Voted top 10 chillest work environment, since the inception of the word chill, guaranteed*. *claim based on anecdotal evidence only.

The Hawaii Brightfields Project is a culmination of the multi-month collaborative work between federal – National Renewable Energy Laboratory, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – and state – Hawaii State Department of Health(DOH), Office of Planning (HSOP), Energy Office (HSEO) – that consolidates the databases of multiple agencies into one centralized database. My task is to create an interactive web map of these sites. Simple, eh? On paper, it really is. However, with such a complex database, inconsistencies, and the abomination that is ArcGIS, issues inevitably arose.

Contaminated sites are joined at the state level according to the attributed Tax Map Key (TMK) information. This method also means that multiple, and sometimes different, contaminated sites can exist within the same TMK parcel. Since in many cases, boundary and area data is missing for contaminated sites, assigning them to TMK parcels allow us to at least estimate the acreage of all sites in the state. In all, of the 380,000 TMK parcels(some parcels are the size of a house, hence the large number), only around 1,500 have some sort of contamination.

So what are the next steps? How can HSEO make the final product to be as useful as possible for stakeholders that are interested in this area? Below are some of the contemplated next steps that were brainstormed:

  • Incorporate stakeholder input to the extent practicable
  • Continue to gather broader stakeholder input to refine work products
  • Publish website with GIS map of Hawaii contaminated sites
  • Pursue other appropriate actions identified to support PV on contaminated sites
  • Provide technical assistance related to actual site work and projects

True to our words, HSEO organized a stakeholder workshop to bring together and capture ideas and use cases from the public and private sector. The next blog intends to retell the event in greater detail.

The “CAVE” at HSEO. Using the HAVEN software (Hawaiʻi Advanced Visualization Energy/Environment Nexus), it is intended to simultaneously visualize complex data to facilitate discussion and collaborations. It proved to be a great complement for the brownfields project. The HAVEN project was developed by researchers at the Laboratory for Advanced Visualization and Applications (LAVA) in the University of Hawaii, Manoa.


HSEO staff geeking out on all things energy.
A map of all contaminated sites in the Sandwich Isles.
Maps and sick rhythm, a winning combo.