What is a Brownfield?

a sign waring of polluted land

What is a Brownfield?

  • Brownfields are 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.

What do Brownfields Look Like in Your Community?

Brownfields vary from community to community. A brownfield could look like a vacant lot, a gas station, or a dilapidated mill building. Depending on your location, several types of brownfields may exist in your community. The following table depicts potential brownfields which may be a part of your community.


Types of Brownfields*


Less Obvious

Not Obvious

Abandoned Mills

Gasoline & Service Stations

Manufacturing Companies

Dry Cleaners

Commercial / Strip Malls

      Hair & Nail Salons

      Home Improvement / Paint Stores

Doctor, Dentist, Veterinary Clinics

Hospitals & Universities

Print Shops


Farms & Orchards


*This is not a comprehensive list of brownfield types

Potential Contaminants

Contaminants are any physical, chemical, biological, or radiological substances that have an adverse effect on air, water, or soil. The most common contaminants found in Rhode Island include the following:

  • Metals (note: some are naturally occurring in the environment; others are the results of a Release)
  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
  • Semi-Volatile Organic Compounds (SVOCs)
    • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)
  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)
  • Petroleum Hydrocarbons
    • Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons (TPH)
    • Extractable Petroleum Hydrocarbons (EPH)
    • Volatile Petroleum Hydrocarbons (VPH)

Soil, water, and air contamination occur from a variety of sources and activities. Government, public, industrial, or commercial facilities, as well as households, can generate or use chemicals that cause contamination when improperly used. However, some chemicals considered contaminants occur naturally in the environment. Many metals, for example, are commonly found in soil.

Understanding a site’s background and previous activities can help instruct which contaminants may be present at the property.


“Typical” Contaminants & Property Types*

Property Type

Potential Contaminant Sources

Contaminant Types

Chemical Category

Gas Stations

Underground Storage Tanks, Dispenser Islands & Piping

Gasoline (leaded & unleaded) & Other Petroleum Products

Metals, VOCs, SVOCs, Petroleum

Service Stations

Body Shops

Paint Booths, Degreasing, Floor Drains, Tanks, Fuels

Oil, Grease, Gasoline, Paint, Thinners, Strippers

Metals, VOCs, SVOCs, Petroleum

Old Mills


Tanks, Floor Drains, Drywells, Painting, Metal Finishing, Machining, Degreasing, On-Site Disposal, Spills, Electric Equipment, Lifts/Elevators

Acids/Alkalis, Metals, Cleaning Solvents, Paints, Cyanides, Thinners, Oils, Fuels

Metals, VOCs, SVOCs, Petroleum, Corrosives, Cyanide, PCBs

Hair & Nail Salons

Hair Dyes, Bleaches, Nail Polish & Remover, Laundering

Metals, Solvents (in polish & remover), Acids/Alkalis, Peroxide

Metals, VOCs, Corrosives

Medical & Veterinary (Hospitals & Offices)

Drugs, Labs, Disinfecting & Cleaning, Blood/Tissue

Metals, Solvents, Corrosives

Metals, VOCs, Corrosives

K-12 & Higher Ed

Science Labs, Art (paint, ceramics), Shop & Trade Rooms (wood, automotive), Athletic Complexes (rinks, fields, pools), Fuel Tanks, Transformers

Oil, Metals, Paints & Thinners, Pesticides/Herbicides, Ammonia, Ethylene Glycol

Metals, VOCs, SVOCs, Petroleum, Pesticides/Herbicides, Refrigerants, PCBs

Farms & Orchards

Barns & Garages, Maintenance, Pest Management, Fueling, Tanks, Animal Waste Management Areas

Gasoline, Oils, Metals, Paint, Pesticides/Herbicides

Metals, VOCs, Petroleum, Pesticides/Herbicides, Nitrogen, Phosphorous

Railroad/Rail Lines

Petroleum, Pest & Weed Control

Oil, Pesticides/Herbicides

Metals, PAHs, Petroleum, Pesticides/Herbicides, PCBs


Property and Vehicle Maintenance, Lead Paint, Historical Uses

Cleaners, Paint, Thinner, Oil, Pesticides/Herbicides, Gasoline

Metals, VOCs, SVOCs, Petroleum, Pesticides/Herbicides

*Courtesy of Suzanne Courtemanche, Tighe & Bond