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Nearly 200 Poor Communities Awarded $76 Million to Clean Up, Redevelop Industrial Sites

The EPA estimates that the US has more than 450,000 brownfield sites, abandoned industrial and commercial facilities



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In Augusta, Maine, an old paper mill that operated for more than a century will be turned into a new hotel and conference center.

In Chicago, soil and ground water polluted with dry-cleaning solvents will be cleaned up to make room for a new library in a poor neighborhood.

On an Indian reservation in Arizona, a contaminated tanning factory will be turned into a new industrial park, perhaps one that makes solar panels.

And in Addison, W. Va., land scarred by an old mine and abandoned railroads will be scoured and transformed into a museum and tourism center.

These projects and 210 others will be funded in part with $76 million in 2011 grants announced Monday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The aim is to help turn contaminated industrial sites called brownfields into new developments that could revitalize communities across the country.

Most of the newly announced grants were awarded to poor, minority communities with high unemployment rates.

New Jersey leads the pack with 13 projects, followed by Massachusetts and Florida, each with 12, according to an EPA list. Michigan will receive seven, totaling $2.9 million. In all, the funds will go to 172 cities or communities in 40 states and three tribes.

Most of the grants are for $200,000 apiece and are directed for cleanup of a specific site. But 21 of them, including grants going to Portland, Ore., Kennebec, Maine and Tallahassee, Fla., are for $1 million each. In those cases, the grant must go to a coalition of at least three groups and involve cleanup of at least five sites. Other grants are for $400,000 and involve both assessment and cleanup.

Since its inception in 1995, the EPA’s brownfields program has awarded 1,895 assessment grants totaling $447.6 million, 279 revolving loan fund grants totaling $273.1 million and 752 cleanup grants totaling $140.8 million. That funding helped leverage more than $16 billion in cleanup and redevelopment funds more than $17 for each federal dollar spent and created nearly 70,000 jobs, EPA officials said.

At each site, the federal grants are paired with local, state and private funding. The money has gone to major cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago as well as small, rural towns and Native American reservations. Gas stations, smelters, ironworks, rail yards and scrap yards are among the sites chosen this year.

"Revitalizing our communities is vital to our health and the health of our local economies," EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said in a statement Tuesday. "The grants we're awarding to communities across America will support projects that will help create thousands of jobs and make our communities cleaner, healthier and more prosperous places to raise a family and start a business.”

The brownfields program started with small seed grants. It grew in 2002 after Congress passed a law which had bipartisan support and was signed by President George Bush that provided funding and protected prospective developers from liability for old contamination they didn’t create.

Environmental groups as well as industry groups have supported the program.

"It is perhaps one of the most cost-effective uses of federal dollars to be found anywhere in the federal government," said Vernice Miller-Travis, former director of the Environmental Justice Initiative at the Natural Resource Defense Council, who was involved with advising EPA on the brownfields program when it was created. "Whole communities and cities have been brought back from the brink of economic despair because of successful brownfields redevelopment projects."

Miller-Travis said the federal grants enable hundreds of communities to transform threats to their public health, natural resources and economy into parks and other recreational uses, housing and new businesses. "As a taxpayer, and an environmentalist who has focused on community revitalization for 25 years, this is how I want to see my tax dollars utilized," she said. "On balance I would have to say they are good choices."

The dollar amount is down slightly for 2011. In 2010, EPA awarded 304 grants totaling $79 million, after receiving about 700 proposals.

By most accounts, the money doesn't come close to addressing all the sites that could be redeveloped. The EPA estimates that the United States has more than 450,000 brownfields sites. Many brownfields sites need millions of dollars to be transformed into community assets.

"The federal dollars spent on brownfields redevelopment are just a pittance of what is required to clean up and redevelop these sites. But without the initial investment of federal dollars many of these sites may never have been able to garner additional funding to bring them back into productive re-use," Miller-Travis said.

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero joined Jackson for the announcement, saying the 2011 grants, which include a $1 million revolving loan for his city, will “energize Lansing’s local economy and create jobs.”

The EPA studied the program benefits and concluded that residential property values increased between two and three percent once a nearby site was assessed or cleaned up. The study also found that cleaning up a brownfields site increased overall property values within a one-mile radius, but by a highly variable amount – between 50 cents and $1.5 million.

This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.

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