Funding, Flexibility Top Local Governments’ Brownfields Bill Wish List

By Sylvia Carignan

More funding, more flexibility and fewer liabilities are the top items local government associations want to see in a new bill reauthorizing the Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields Program.

But the Trump administration’s plans to cut the EPA’s budget may imperil existing funding levels for the program, which cleans up contaminated land sites for new uses by communities and cities, returning them to the tax rolls.

Representatives for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, National League of Cities, National Association of Counties and Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials Inc. testified at a March 28 House infrastructure subcommittee hearing on the EPA’s Brownfields Program.

Reps. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.) and John Katko (R-N.Y.) March 28 introduced the Brownfields Reauthorization Act of 2017, which would keep congressional appropriations at their current funding level of $250 million annually.

The bill also would expand eligibility for grants, create multipurpose grants that would apply to one or more brownfield sites in a given area, and allow grants to cover administrative costs, among other changes.

“This is a good time to have a wish list,” Katko said at the hearing.

More Work Ahead

J. Christian Bollwage, the mayor of Elizabeth, N.J., represented the U.S. Conference of Mayors at the hearing. He asked the subcommittee members to consider increasing the caps on individual grants to help redevelop more contaminated or complex sites.

“There is much more work that can be done,” he said.

Deborah Robertson, the mayor of Rialto, Calif., echoed Bollwage’s comments.

“We have so many sites that still need to be addressed, and we’ll never get ahead of the eight-ball if we only identify a few at a time,” she said.

The bill Katko and Esty introduced would increase the funding limit for remediation from $200,000 per site to $600,000 per site. However, that would require Congress to appropriate at least $300 million for the Brownfields Program, according to a summary of the bill.

The bill also would create multipurpose grants, which allows property owners to apply brownfield grants to different kinds of work—inventorying, characterization, assessment, planning or remediation—at one or more sites in a proposed area.

Underserved Sites

John Dailey, representing the National Association of Counties, noted that residents of unincorporated and rural areas often don’t have municipal staff applying for Brownfields Program grants to help revitalize their communities.

“The answer is, number one, of course, more funding,” Dailey said. Additional funding “levels the playing field” for smaller, rural communities to be able to compete for grants.

“There’s not enough money in the Treasury” to clean up every brownfield site, Esty said, but the bill would encourage partnerships between grant recipients and the private sector to stretch the federal dollar.

Matt Zone, president of the National League of Cities, said local governments that have to take over contaminated sites aren’t necessarily protected from being liable from cleanup.

The bill would expand grant eligibility to governments that acquired brownfields property before Jan. 11, 2002, but the entity still would be ineligible if it caused or contributed to a release of contaminants at the property.

Zone also told the subcommittee that the current political climate and the new administration are affecting developers who might invest time and money into brownfield sites.

“There’s so much uncertainty right now that the private sector is, quite frankly, skittish,” Zone said.

Federal vs. Private Investment

The Brownfields Program has been operating “efficiently and successfully” since its inception in 1995, Rep. Grace F. Napolitano (D-Calif.) said. But the EPA can only fund about a third of the qualified grant applications.

Napolitano said at the hearing that she was “troubled” by reports that the EPA wants to eliminate the program. She said a letter she sent to the EPA requesting details has gone unanswered.

The EPA didn't respond to Bloomberg BNA’s request for comment.

After a committee vote, the measure will be forwarded to the House Transportation and Infrastructure, and Energy and Commerce committees.

For More Information

A summary of the Brownfields Reauthorization Act of 2017 is available at http://src.bna.com/nrq.

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