House Votes to Renew Brownfields Program for First Time in 15 Years

By Sylvia Carignan and Dean Scott

The House Nov. 30 overwhelmingly passed legislation to reauthorize the brownfields program, which helps communities clean up and reuse contaminated sites, although Senate action will likely have to wait until 2018.

The bill, which passed 409-8, has won widespread support from environmental engineers, developers, and municipalities. Those who have followed the bill ( H.R. 3017) said a few recent changes to limit brownfields grants may have mixed results for communities seeking financial assistance.

The overall legislation signals congressional support for developers, communities, and an Environmental Protection Agency program that hasn’t been reauthorized since its inception in 2002, those followers said.

Organizations including the National Ground Water Association, National Association of Realtors, and Smart Growth America lobbied in support of the legislation.

The EPA’s Brownfields Program provides communities with technical assistance and grants to assess, clean up, and promote redevelopment of sites that are or might be contaminated. The House bill authorizes up to $200 million for the federal program and $50 million for state response programs for each fiscal year from 2018 through 2022.

The bill relieves local governments of liability when handling brownfields, makes nonprofits eligible for grant funding, and expands applicable uses for individual grants.

Senate Action in 2018?

A similar bill in the Senate (S. 822), introduced by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), hasn't yet reached the floor and, with just two weeks of scheduled floor time left for the year, almost surely will be put off until next year. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved the bill in July.

Inhofe told Bloomberg Environment hours earlier there may be broad enough support to expedite the Senate bill under unanimous consent (UC), a procedure that avoids debate and deems a bill passed as long as no senator objects. “I don’t know of any opposition to it, in fact I thought we could UC it,” the Oklahoma Republican said. “And that will be my intent now that it’s passing the House.”

The environment committee’s chairman, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), “believes this is important bipartisan legislation that should be passed this Congress,” Mike Danylak, a spokesman for the committee’s majority, said.

The bill reauthorizes the program by amending the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, which aims to protect human health and the environment from releases of hazardous substances, pollutants, and contaminants.

Combination of Provisions

The House bill is a combination of provisions from H.R. 3017, introduced by Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.), and H.R. 1758, introduced by Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.). Both the House’s Energy and Commerce and the Transportation and Infrastructure committees approved the bills.

Committee staff who drafted the revised single bill narrowed the pool of grant recipients for brownfields funding and altered what some grants can be used for.

A recent modification to the House bill changed the size of the communities eligible to apply for technical assistance grants. Technical assistance grants designated for small communities now define “small community” as having a population of 10,000 or less, instead of 20,000 or less.

“This will open up the program to a lot more communities,” Christopher Coes, who manages the National Brownfields Coalition as part of Smart Growth America, said.

By limiting eligibility, he said, smaller communities will have a better chance of receiving grant funding.

“The smaller the community, the greater the challenge they often face,” Lauren Schapker, government affairs director at the National Ground Water Association, told Bloomberg Environment. Schapker said the association’s members, who include scientists and environmental engineers, are generally in favor of the bill.

But legislators also altered the bill’s multipurpose grants, which are more flexible than existing grants because they allow communities to spend the funds on site assessment, planning, and remediation instead of only remediation. In the bill, the multipurpose grants can't be applied to technical assistance.

“That’s often what we hear from communities they need the most,” Schapker said.

Bringing in Consultants

Communities would like to bring in consultants to help them make decisions about a brownfield site, but taking technical assistance out of that type of grant would hinder that effort, Coes told Bloomberg Environment.

“Oftentimes there’s no real funding for that, so providing the ability for that is important,” Coes said.

But those are minor changes when it comes to a developer’s point of view, said Michael Goldstein, managing shareholder of the Goldstein Environmental Law Firm.

“Those changes are on the margins and I think there’s so much here that is overwhelmingly positive,” Goldstein told Bloomberg Environment. “This will be a huge jump start for the program and will be a signal that Congress continues to support environmental redevelopment.”

For a Bloomberg Government bill summary, click here.

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