Federal Brownfields Funding Focus Shifts

As municipalities nationwide struggle to address the problem of contaminated industrial sites, called Brownfields, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., has shifted its funding focus from assessment to cleanup.

Nearly 70 percent of this year's $38 million in federal Brownfields pilot grants, announced on April 20, 2001, will fund cleanup revolving loan programs. Most of the 26 revolving loan recipients received the maximum allowed $1 million, which is twice the maximum allowed last year. By contrast, the ceiling for site assessment grants this year was $200,000 for new pilots and $150,000 for ongoing pilots, with an additional $50,000 available for greenspace initiatives.

“This is because our communities are begging for cleanup dollars,” says Linda Garczynski, director of outreach and special projects for the EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. “Because the federal budget is a zero-sum game, we had to decrease the amount of funding available for our assessment pilots in order to increase the base amount available for our revolving loan pilot.”

Each fall, the EPA solicits Brownfields grant proposals from cities and states. After receiving the proposals, staff members evaluate the balance of requests to determine where the greatest need lies, Garczynski explains. This year, the need for cleanup dollars far outweighed the need for assessment dollars, she says.

According to a U.S. Conference of Mayors national survey of 240 cities, cleanup funding tops the list of Brownfields concerns. Liability considerations rank second, and assessment funding ranks third.

But this is not new information, according to Judy Sheahan, director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Brownfields redevelopment program, Washington, D.C. “Ever since 1999, cities have ranked the lack of cleanup funding as the biggest impediment to Brownfields redevelopment,” she says.

However, $38 million is only a drop in the bucket for cities facing Brownfields redevelopment costs, Sheahan admits. “The EPA grant is not a lot compared to total redevelopment costs,” she says. “Each Brownfields site can cost as much as $4 million.”

While federal funds are helpful, EPA's revolving loan grant guidelines have, in the past, been difficult for cities to follow, Sheahan adds. This is because the revolving loan fund is linked to EPA's Superfund program, which is designed to address severely contaminated sites and requires considerable documentation.

This year, the EPA has worked to simplify its Brownfields grant rules, and Sheahan is waiting to see how these changes will affect the grant reporting process.

Meanwhile, cities nationwide are searching for creative solutions to the cost burden of Brownfields redevelopment, Sheahan says. For example, Chicago has secured $58 million in federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grants to redevelop some properties, and Dallas has secured $200 million in redevelopment funds from private sector developers and banks, she notes.

To address cities' second most pressing Brownfields concern — liability — the U.S. Conference of Mayors is pushing for liability reform legislation, with marked success. On April 25, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to pass S. 350, a bill that would provide $200 million per year to cities and states for site cleanup and would insulate developers from future Superfund lawsuits resulting from the discovery of additional contamination at a site.

Two similar Brownfields bills introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives have not yet been considered, but the fact that both President Bush and his former opponent Al Gore supported Brownfields liability reform bodes well for a decision this session, pundits say. In a recent statement, EPA Administrator Christie Whitman said, “I look forward to working with the House to earn its bipartisan endorsement of Brownfields legislation.”

Sheahan approves of the Bush administration's Brownfields record so far. “President Bush and Administrator Whitman have been true to their word in fully supporting Brownfields legislation,” she says. “Whitman has met with [the U.S. Conference of Mayors] twice to discuss Brownfields issues.”

Looking to the future, Sheahan says that the focus of Brownfields redevelopment initiatives once again is likely to shift. After cleanup and liability issues are addressed, municipalities will begin to focus on building infrastructure, such as sewers and roads. “But that would be step two,” she adds. “We're in step one.”

Currently, the problems of assessment and cleanup loom large for municipalities nationwide, says the EPA's Garczynski. “If you ever take the Amtrak up to New York and look out the window, you'll see eyesore after eyesore,” she says. “Many of those properties have no owner.”