A Modernized EPA Brownfields Program Could Revitalize City Spaces
A Sheraton Hotel in Gary, Ind., which had been closed since the mid-70s, was sold to a group of private investors in 1989 for $1 million with plans for the group to invest an additional $5-10 million to renovate the hotel as a mixed-used commercial and hotel space. Several months later, an environmental impact study discovered asbestos throughout the building. With estimates of asbestos removal around $500,000, plans for the renovation stalled and the buyers backed out.
The property sat vacant for an additional 20 years until the city was able to obtain funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Brownfields program, a neighborhood stabilization grant, and the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority. Combined with local funds, the city demolished the former hotel in 2014. This project has been symbolic to removing blight from the downtown area, allowing the city to position itself for future redevelopment.
"Brownfields redevelopment is a win-win for everyone involved. It creates jobs, it cleans up the environment, and it's pro-business and pro-community," said Mayor J. Christian Bollwage of Elizabeth, N.J., at a recent hearing on revitalizing communities through the EPA Brownfields program.
The hearing by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, chaired by Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-OH), focused on the positive impacts that cleaning up and redeveloping brownfield sites has on communities.
The hearing was the kickoff to forthcoming legislation in the House to reauthorize the Brownfields program, which expired in 2006. The Brownfields program provides grants and technical assistance to support the assessment, cleanup and redevelopment of sites that are complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant.
In a letter submitted for the record, NLC applauded the development of legislation that would reauthorize the EPA Brownfields program and asked Congress to include reforms that strengthen the program to support brownfields redevelopment efforts in cities and towns across the county. "The EPA Brownfields program is vital for local governments in aiding their redevelopment efforts and supporting the productive reuse of property," stated NLC CEO and Executive Director Clarence E. Anthony.
Specifically, NLC supports provisions that will allow the EPA Brownfields program to have a greater impact on communities such as: increasing the overall funding authorization level; increasing the cap on the assessment grant amount; increasing the technical assistance offered to communities; authorizing funding for multipurpose grants to provide greater financing certainty for large, complex projects; allowing government entities that did not cause or contribute to the contamination to be eligible to receive grants; and allowing local governments to use a portion of their grant funding for administrative costs.
Additionally, one of the greatest challenges that cities face in brownfields redevelopment is liability concerns and the disincentives created by the potential liability that exists for local governments to acquire contaminated property. NLC urged Congress to clarify and expand liability protections for public entities that acquire contaminated brownfields sites where the public entity had no involvement in the contamination.
The Senate has also taken up the issue of Brownfields reauthorization. Last month, a bipartisan group of senators led by Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and Edward Markey (D-MA) introduced the Brownfields Utilization, Investment, and Local Development (BUILD) Act (S. 1479) that would reauthorize the Brownfields program through fiscal year 2018.
"This reauthorization, among other things, will amend the program to allow small communities access to technical assistance and to streamline projects so that they can be completed more efficiently," stated Inhofe.
The Senate legislation includes many of NLC's recommendations for strengthening the program, but does not address liability concerns. NLC looks forward to working with both the House and Senate this year to advance Brownfields reauthorization legislation, including making these important changes that will allow local governments to attract jobs and investment to distressed communities, reposition vital assets for environmentally-responsible economic growth and address public health and safety concerns.
Carolyn Berndt is NLC's Program Director for Sustainability. Jordan Wilson is a Federal Advocacy intern at NLC, and a Senior at Howard University.