Every lawmaker shared a hometown success story about U.S. EPA’s brownfields program yesterday as a House subcommittee looked for ways to strengthen the grant program.
Acknowledging it was rare for him to praise EPA, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster lauded its efforts to revitalize abandoned or underused tracts during the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee hearing.
"We’ve seen great examples of how you can take those brownfield sites and turn them into valuable, productive pieces of land," the Pennsylvania Republican said.
There are more than 400,000 brownfield sites — former mills, dumps and other properties scorned because of the real or perceived contamination, according to the Government Accountability Office.
The EPA effort to revitalize those tracts enjoys rare bipartisan support. Every congressional district has at least one brownfield, especially in the Great Lakes and Northeast regions that endured an exodus of manufacturing in the late 20th century.
"We absolutely have to get manufacturing back in New York state and the Northeast, and I believe we can do that, but in the meantime, we’ve got to take care of the sites that some manufacturers and businesses left a mess," said Rep. John Katko, a Republican whose central New York district has been hit hard by the downturn.
To appear at yesterday’s hearing, Katko had to forgo a symbolic swim with other community leaders in Onondaga Lake near Syracuse. With many residents still apprehensive about water quality in a lake that was only recently declared safe for swimming, he asked EPA Assistant Administrator Mathy Stanislaus about how to put his agency’s program to work on the lake.
Stanislaus pointed to EPA’s "model program," which uses partnerships with local and state agencies to leverage additional funds.
According to EPA, the program returns $18 for every dollar spent. Property values for the nearly 45,000 refurbished acres in the effort rose between 5.1 and 12.8 percent.
Cleanups and redevelopment have created more than 106,000 jobs and $23.3 billion for projects so far, Stanislaus said.
This year, he said, 120 sites are expected to be cleaned up, creating at least 5,000 jobs in areas with above-average unemployment.
"It achieves public health protection by cleaning up these properties, it achieves economic development, community revitalization, and it address social issues like unemployment," Stanislaus said.
EPA also appears receptive to tweaks suggested by members of Congress.
Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) questioned whether the agency could do more to help communities overcome concerns about liability.
According to Stanislaus, the agency is reaching out to the National League of Cities and other groups, as well as clarifying the process and associated risks to eliminate misconceptions about liability.
"We welcome further engagement from you all, as well as communities around the country," he said.
Helping rural communities
While usually associated with urban sites, 24 percent of brownfield grants went to communities with fewer than 20,000 residents, EPA said.
Geologist Paul Gruber of the National Ground Water Association urged the subcommittee to increase incentives for rural areas where brownfields and other contaminated sites threaten aquifers.
And J. Christian Bollwage, mayor of Elizabeth, N.J., representing the Conference of Mayors, urged appropriators to meet previously authorized funding levels of $250 million for the "proven program." Only a third of applicants presently receive grants, EPA says.
Bollwage also advocated for allowing grants to cover reasonable administrative costs like rent and utilities, a chief concern of smaller communities.
And Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.) raised the issue of making nonprofits eligible for brownfield grants. Nonprofits often play vital roles in local projects, but figuring out how much a project could cost is a tall task as they cannot legally receive assessment grants.
Stanislaus said Esty’s change would require congressional action.
EPA is expressing concern about Senate brownfield-reauthorization legislation that would set aside more funding exclusively for assessments (E&ENews PM, June 2).
Stanislaus said the Senate bill could take flexibility away from local governments at various stages of the cleanup process.
"If we divide the pot up front, it’s essentially putting the federal government in the position of judging end use," he said. "I think that it should be up to the community at the right time to determine what the end use is."
Bollwage pressed for more local control, consolidating grants to avoid delays and investor uncertainty.
"The Conference of Mayors would like to see the establishment of a multi-purpose grant to be given to communities that have a proven track record of fully utilizing their brownfield money," he said.
Bollwage also called for more cleanup grants as the established program moves from easier to more difficult tasks.
But Stanislaus urged caution.
"It could have the unintended impact of actually reducing the total number of communities that receive grants," he said.