Monday, July 15, 2013

The EPA and Sustainable Communities

I spoke with Charlie Bartsch who is Senior Advisor for Economic Development to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Assistant Administrator for the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response to catch up and find out what the former Director of Brownfield Studies at the Northeast-Midwest Institute was doing at the EPA. Despite the political appointment and ridiculously long title, Charlie is working to help communities think creatively and bring strategies for redevelopment and revitalization to the areas surrounding their Brownfield sites.

In simplistic terms, a Brownfield is an environmentally contaminated property. Even when redevelopment is performed by private industry, local governments and communities need to work together to encourage and facilitate the remediation, redevelopment and full utilization of Brownfield sites. The largest obstacles to redevelopment need to be removed or overcome to achieve this goal. The most obvious impediment is the contamination itself. The costs and time involved to remediate a site to pristine environmental conditions can be prohibitive. However, over the past two decades, the trend in the United States has been to develop risk based cleanup standards and voluntary cleanup programs intended in part to encourage Brownfield redevelopment. These programs reduced the cost of cleanup while intending to enforce cleanup levels, which are protective of human health and the environment. These programs differ in their application from region to region and agency to agency, but facilitate the remediation and redevelopment of contaminated properties. Though, cleanup to a lesser level costs less, it still costs more to redevelopment a contaminated property. The money to research and test a site to determine how contaminated the site is can be prohibitively expensive. In addition, there is the need to ensure that risk based cleanups will remain protective over time which can involve on-going increased property operating costs.

During the early days of the 21st century when real estate was white hot there was enough value in the contaminated properties in places like California, New York, and Massachusetts to be able to purchase a contaminated property at a discount and remediate and redevelop a site and we glossed over the durability of a cleanup and future operating cost associated with the cleanup. However, that was then. These days and especially in communities that are not in the markets with the most expensive real estate it is a tremendous challenge to not only redevelop a contaminated, but to revitalize a community. These languishing properties were contaminated by industry that in most cases long ago left town or by public works that have been replaced. Not only is a community left with an abandoned eyesore and contaminated property, but the community is left searching for economic vitality to revitalize the community.

One of the programs that Charlie is working with is what the EPA is calling The Brownfield Area-Wide Planning Program. In the area-wide planning approach to redevelopments the strategy is for the community to lead in the revitalization of the area surrounding the brownfield site. The thinking now goes that revitalization of the area surrounding the site is as critical to the successful reuse of the property as environmental assessment, cleanup, and redevelopment of the contaminated property site. It is believed that the area-wide planning approach will enhance EPA's core Brownfields assistance programs which had stalled in the great recession when the economics of Brownfield redevelopment and the lack of financing became insurmountable hurdles, especially in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. So EPA is using small grants of $175,000-$200,000 to try to jump start economic redevelopment by encouraging “continued meaningful involvement in a locally-driven planning process” that will result in a strategy for making Brownfields site assessment, cleanup and/or redevelopment decisions for the future.

EPA’s Brownfield Area-Wide Planning program is part of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities collaboration among EPA and the Departments of Transportation (DOT) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched by President Obama in 2009. The Partnership for Sustainable Communities ensures that the agencies consider affordable housing, transportation, and environmental protection together to create healthier communities. To date, the three agency program has provided more than $4 billion in funding for projects. You can search the link to see where the money has been spent. The EPA Area-Wide program was launched in 2010 when EPA selected 23 communities to receive grants and direct technical assistance to work towards these goals. The Brownfields Area-Wide (BF AWP) Planning program aims to promote community revitalization by using cleanups to stimulate local economies and protect people’s health and the environment. EPA’s Brownfields program encourages the redevelopment of abandoned and potentially contaminated waste sites across the country.

The grant recipients varied across the board and a quick look at the two ends of the spectrum can give you a flavor of the program. The City of Kalispell, Montana is the home to approximately 1,300 people. The grant given to the city was targeted to focus on the Core Revitalization Area (CRA), which generally follows historic railroad tracks and contains multiple brownfields. The CRA project began in 2004 when the community decided to develop a downtown strategy to revitalize the central core of Kalispell. This EPA grant- area-wide plan was targeted to identify and rank brownfields along the rail corridor in terms of health risk and revitalization need, develop a market study and needs assessment to facilitate brownfields site reuse planning, and allow the city to more fully involve the community in the planning process.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Neighborhood Parks Council (NPC) of San Francisco, CA. The EPA grant to NPC was intended to will facilitate community involvement in area-wide planning of the Blue Greenway which is imagined as a 13-mile corridor along the city’s Southeastern waterfront, where open spaces will be linked together for new recreational opportunities, nature discovery, and public access to the waterfront. This area adjacent to the Bay was the industrial heart of the city from the 1850s to the mid-1900s and included heavy industrial uses, sewer treatment facilities, and power generation facilities. This is a poor neighborhood with a poverty rate at 21% and unemployment of 19% sitting adjacent to the waterfront, but blighted by the abandoned properties. The NPC has led the effort to create the Blue Greenway Project since 2003. The area-wide planning grant was intended to leverage existing efforts to address the threats to human health and the environment posed by the historic contamination, and identifying reuses for brownfield sites.

As Charlie explained to me, EPA does not have established metrics to measure the success of the Brownfields Area-Wide Planning Pilot Project. However, Charlie did list a series of goals for the program that would demonstrate success.
  • Lead to success in redeveloping these economically and environmentally damaged locations. 
  • Modify and advance local government thinking and knowledge about Brownfields and the redevelopment process.
  • Facilitate the removal of stigma from the Brownfields and adjacent communities.
  • Cross fertilization of knowledge and ideas across communities and getting everyone to think more creatively about resources and infrastructure.
  • Encourage everyone of the communities to grow smarter and determine what is feasible and desirable. 

The first 23 communities that have received grants have pretty much spent the money and we will all look forward to hearing what they have learned and accomplished with the grants. EPA reports Brownfields grants and investments have leveraged more than $19 billion in cleanup and redevelopment over the years, creating 87,000 jobs from both public and private sources though it is unclear how this was measured, but that would be a cost of under $220,000 per job. This past spring, EPA announced that the second round of grants had been awarded. Approximately $4 million in grants had been given to 20 communities to assist with planning for cleanup and reuse of Brownfields properties.

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