Cleanups of polluted sites in cities and towns are in line for billions of dollars in funding following last year’s infrastructure law—money that advocates of disadvantaged communities say should help steer redevelopment into much-needed grocery stores, affordable housing, and better-paying jobs.
Environmental and community advocates are hoping the record funding will accelerate cleanups of brownfields—abandoned gas stations, dry cleaning operations, and other potentially contaminated sites—while avoiding redevelopment that may only worsen local pollution, such as truck-dependent shipping and distribution centers.
Challenges have arisen in restoring waste sites in ways that benefit communities. Local political leaders don’t necessarily prioritize cleanups and redevelopment in poorer neighborhoods, and advocacy groups have limited resources, said Omega Wilson, co-founder of the West End Revitalization Association in Mebane, N.C.
Progress in North Carolina has been slow, Wilson said, pointing to the state’s 650 sites in various stages of cleanup. The challenges for local groups include a lack of in-house resources to engage on so many sites, and to press local and state officials who don’t always make cleanups a priority to apply for funding.
“How many people do we have in our office for this? The answer to that is none,” Wilson said.
Bang for Buck
For these groups, more federal funding offers at least a glimmer of hope.
Brownfields site cleanups will get $1.5 billion in new funds from the infrastructure package and potentially millions more in annual appropriations, money that should mean progress on some of the more than 450,000 brownfields sites scattered around the nation that President Joe Biden has pledged will be converted into economic growth “hubs.”
EPA estimates each dollar in the program pays $20 in dividends in boosted economic activity. Given the return on those dollars, “it’s hard to understand why we don’t see much greater funding” from federal but also local and state sources, said Rick Kubler, an attorney specializing in brownfields issues for the Lathrop GPM law firm.
The funding infusion should translate into more benefits for disadvantaged, frontline communities, said Peter Wright, who oversaw the program as former assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management and is now a partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP.
The infrastructure funding is to be divided over five years, providing $300 million a year, in new cleanup money. Under Biden’s fiscal 2023 budget, the Environmental Protection Agency is requesting another $214.8 million in appropriations for brownfields, a 32% increase over the $162.2 million Congress awarded in the fiscal 2022 spending package passed in March.
The infrastructure dollars will clean up hundreds of brownfields and assess 18,000 sites, while assisting hundreds of communities in identifying “equitable reuse options to cultivate healthy, resilient, livable neighborhoods,” according to a detailed EPA breakdown of the funding.
The fiscal 2023 request would mean assistance in more than 400 historically under-served communities and will leverage approximately 13,400 jobs and $2.6 billion in other funding sources, agency officials said.
Typically less contaminated and more ubiquitous than Superfund sites, brownfields “are pretty much everywhere,” said Patricia Overmeyer, land revitalization coordinator with EPA’s brownfields office. They also are more likely to be found “in the neighborhood and among environmental justice populations,” Overmeyer said.
EPA has a relatively limited role in determining how the sites are reused, which has long been up to cities, state redevelopment agencies, and local planning officials to decide. But chunks of the funding will help communities pursuing redevelopment: $30 million in job training grants for communities, tribes, nonprofit groups, and states, and $110 million providing technical assistance to adapt to changes wrought by climate change and eliminate barriers to safety and sustainable property reuse.
Adding EPA Positions
North Carolina’s Glencoe Mill Village, an historic area once busy with textile and metal salvage operations and now home to a museum and walking trails, is one site where brownfields efforts have produced a success, according to Wilson.
But other sites, including cleanup of a 22-acre site 20 minutes away in Burlington once home to both a Western Electric defense operation and an army missile plant, have struggled to advance. Former Western Electric sites—including along the Passaic River in New Jersey and in Baltimore—have been in various stages of cleanup, some for decades.
The Burlington site “may not technically fit” the definition of a brownfields cleanup given high contamination levels there, according to an assessment prepared for the city, and the community has struggled to get the Army to accelerate and expand its cleanup.
More federal dollars won’t necessarily translate into accelerating such cleanups, said Wilson, if they don’t overcome disinterest or even outright opposition from local governments showing little interest in helping mostly black and marginalized communities.
“The question that EJ communities and organizations keep raising is whether or not the local governments are going to get this money to clean up these sites,” he said.
Biden’s budget proposal calls for hiring dozens of regional Brownfields Community Development Specialists—equivalent to 60 new positions—question to assist communities in small or rural areas.
The specialists would expand EPA’s technical assistance program and “build capacity " for communities pushing for more cleanups in at least 250 additional small, rural, and other communities suffering from disproportionate pollution and other environmental justice concerns, agency officials said.
More funding means EPA can do more to make communities aware of the program, provide technical assistance, and better manage increasing flow of grants made possible by more dollars, Overmeyer said.
“It takes people going out into the neighborhood and also being able to partner with our states, community groups, and nonprofits in the faith-based community,” she said.
Millions of dollars from the infrastructure package began flowing in May to 227 communities from Bath, Maine to Bakersfield, Calif., for site assessments and cleanups for a total of $147.5 million in brownfields grant awards.
EPA also awarded $107 million in supplemental grants for cleanups underway by 39 cities, counties, and planning commissions, including Atlanta, Kansas City, and Chattanooga, Tenn.
Earlier this month, the EPA began soliciting applications from nonprofits and other organizations for roughly 25 grants, up to $500,000 per award, for job training focused on “unemployed and under-employed residents.”
The program remains “a comparatively modest-sized program compared with much bigger water project grants” Congress provides to states through EPA revolving loan funds, Wright said.
“But what it does have is outsized returns, a very big payback” for federal dollars in communities, he said, “which is why the program has generally been very popular” even among congressional critics of the environmental agency.