From the US Environmental Protection Agency: A brownfield is recoverable property, the reuse of which is complicated by the presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant. A brownfield is far less contaminated than a Superfund site. There are more than 450,000 brownfields in the U.S.
Less than a block from Rockville Pike, set back from the street enough to be hardly noticeable, is a small, white, cinder block building that houses the Terra Raza Rest Home for the Environmentally Challenged. My tour began in the first floor common room. Sara Foley, tour guide and General Manager of Terra Raza, is an unnaturally giddy woman of indeterminate age.
"We don't allow caustic or toxic substances of any kind in the common room," Sara explained, "although some residents sneak them in from time to time. A few months ago, one of the couches began causing rashes and mild skin edemas. Someone must have had a little accident. We had the couch removed and incinerated."
"Where do the residents get such substances?" I asked.
"Oh, just from their rooms," Sara replied. "They're allowed to have personal possessions, of course. They are private citizens. Remember, none of our residents are criminals. Either they were never indicted, or if so, they were never convicted. Now, I'd like to introduce you to a few of our local celebrities."
We proceeded to the second floor, where Sara directed us into a small, nicely furnished apartment. A gray-haired man in black slacks and a white shirt sat on the couch watching television, oblivious to our entry. Sara beamed at me.
"This is the last navigator of the Exxon Valdez," she said. "I'm not sure he'll acknowledge us. He mostly just watches the Nature channel."
I kneeled down next to the man and said hello. His eyes remained glued to the television. He occasionally blinked. After a few moments, Sara guided me back into the hallway.
"Each floor has sixteen apartments. The second floor, where we are now, is mostly gentlemen associated with the oil industry. A former CEO has a double suite at the end of the hall, although I'm not at liberty to tell you his name. The third and fourth floors are also oil. The fifth floor is toxic spills, non-oil related. Six is deforestation, both planned and accidental. Floors seven and eight are chemicals: seven is general chemicals, eight is polymers and plastics. The ninth and tenth floors are nuclear accidents, which is where your father would be, of course. Let's go there."
Sara stopped in front of a door on the ninth floor. After knocking, she seemed to titter ever so slightly, and then she leaned sideways and whispered to me, "This gentleman was involved in that little mishap at Three Mile Island." The door opened and a sprightly, white-haired man enthusiastically ushered us into the apartment.
"Hello, hello," the man said, "I'm Gene (not his real name). Come in, come in. Sara told me she might bring a prospect around."
As we entered the apartment, Gene knocked over a coat rack by the door. He motioned us toward the couch. "Sit, sit," he said. "Can I get you anything to drink?" Without waiting for an answer, Gene disappeared into the kitchen, returning almost immediately clutching two soft drink cans in each hand. As he reached us, a can of soda slipped out of his hand, bounced off the coffee table, and landed on the couch. "Don't open that one," Gene warned us.
We sat on the couch, and I asked Gene how he liked living in a retirement home with other people who had caused severe damage to the earth.
"I think it works out well," Gene started. "It gives you something to talk about with the other residents. Our floor is all radioactivity, you know, so wash you hands before you leave." He laughed, and punched my arm. "But seriously, you get to meet a lot of interesting people from all over the world. Take Dimitri and Alex down the hall. They're from Chernobyl, Russia. Nicest couple of guys you'd ever want to meet. They both drink like fish. Great card players, too. I mean if you look at the people in here, they're mostly decent people who just got into some unfortunate situations, although there are a few industry execs too. I believe that most of us are victims of a larger force, you know, a sort of general human tendency towards accidental destruction of the planet. Kind of like entropy."
A half-hour later we were in Sara's office filling out paperwork. "You're lucky you came in when you did," she said. "Your father is getting one of the last few apartments available; until someone moves on, of course." She put the papers I'd just signed into a manila folder. "This will hold the room starting immediately. Now, when exactly do you think your father might be joining us?"
"As soon as his radiation level decays down to background," I said.
"Oh, don't be too worried about getting him all the way to zero," she replied. "Just bring him in when he's no longer overly warm to the touch."