House subcommittee examines the successes of and potential improvements to EPA Brownfields program

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Brownfields program helps communities clean up and redevelop contaminated land and put it back into productive use. EPA Brownfield grants and assistance have helped turn former industrial sites into new parks, office buildings, performing arts centers, and more in communities across the country.

Although the program gets funding from Congress each year, it is not an official part of the federal budget. On April 21, 2016, the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy held a hearing about the program, including what about it currently works well, what could be improved, and how the program helps communities handle issues like environmental liability concerns, financial barriers, cleanup considerations, and reuse planning.

Subcommittee members recognized that the program could be doing more to help communities clean up contaminated sites. “Reform would give grant recipients more flexibility and encourage more support,” said Congressman Paul Tonko (D-NY). “We can make it easier for non-profit stakeholders to get involved, and we can put more emphasis on regional planning to make the program even more effective.”

Congressman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) echoed this sentiment, and encouraged his colleagues to continue to work to improve the program and ensure local states and communities have the resources they need to revitalize their communities.

Subcommittee members heard from two panels of expert witnesses, including Meade Anderson of the Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials; Mayor Chris Bollwage of Elizabeth, NJ; Veronica Eady, Vice President and Director, Conservation Law Foundation; Clark Henry, Owner, CIII Associates, LLC; Amy Romig, Partner, Plews Shadley Racher & Braun, LLP; and the Hon. Mathy Stanislaus, Assistant Administrator for the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Brownfields sites are in the heart of America’s downtowns and existing or former economic centers,” said Hon. Mathy Stanislaus, Assistant Administrator of the Office of Land and Emergency Management at EPA. “Reclaiming these vacant or underutilized properties is at the core of the EPA’s community economic revitalization efforts. Repurposing land can be the impetus for spurring community revitalization.”

Meade Anderson, Chair of the Brownfields Focus Group of the Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials, stressed the importance of protecting what funding does exist for the program, noting that additional applicants and program areas would threaten an already-limited funding source.

Mayor Chris Bollwage of Elizabeth, NJ, explained how the program has had positive impacts on many communities throughout the nation and in his hometown specifically. “Urban sprawl has left almost every community in the nation with at least one brownfield site,” Bollwage explained. “In our city, we have Jersey Gardens Mall. Built on a former landfill and 166 acres, it now has 2 million square feet of shopping, over 200 stores, 6 hotels and a movie theater, with 1,700 construction jobs, 4,000 permanent jobs, and $2.5 million in tax revenue in the first 8 months. It would not have been done without a [EPA] Brownfields Assessment Grant.”

Veronica Eady, Vice President and Director, Conservation Law Foundation highlighted the important role non-profit environmental organizations have played to facilitate the cleanup of brownfields sites. Other issues addressed at the hearing included a need to review and refine entities not currently eligible to receive brownfields grants that should be eligible; the need to streamline the assessment and cleanup process; the need to reduce barriers by easing access to the program for smaller, rural towns; and the need to address financial barriers especially from lenders.

Through grants and technical assistance, EPA’s Brownfields Program empowers states, local communities, tribes, and other stakeholders to work together to prevent, assess, safely clean up, and restore contaminated areas back into productive use. Through fiscal year 2013, every EPA Brownfields dollar leveraged an average of $17.79 in new investment, and every $100,000 of Brownfields funding leveraged an average of 7.3 jobs.

The program enjoys strong bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress. The question now is whether representatives will make this crucial program an official part of the federal budget.