After 25 years, brownfield cleanup still totals millions

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An example of a brownfield. Image: EPA

By Carl Stoddard
Capital News Service

Around Michigan, new developments are springing up on formerly polluted, abandoned sites, thanks to the state-funded Brownfield Redevelopment Program.

Since it was launched in 1992, the program has awarded $200 million in brownfield grants and loans for 350 projects in Michigan, said the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Just last year, $6.1 million was awarded for 26 new projects.

In all, the DEQ said, state brownfield money has been used for projects in 68 of Michigan’s 83 counties.

“We’ve been very busy,” said Jeff Hukill, a coordinator for the DEQ’s Brownfield Redevelopment Program. “There’s a lot of interest out there. There is a need and demand for it.”

The DEQ says its brownfield program has led to successes in cities around the state, including Ann Arbor, Detroit, Dowagiac, East Lansing, Grand Rapids, Northville, St. Johns and Traverse City.

Holland used state brownfield money to help develop the Baker Lofts, a former furniture factory that was cleaned up and refurbished for residential, retail and office use.

The brownfield program also helped clean up a heavily contaminated site to allow construction of a Menards home improvement store, said Tim Vagle, Holland’s city treasurer and director of finance.

About a dozen other brownfield projects also are in the works around the West Michigan city, Vagle said.

Although the program has some limitations, Vagle said, “it’s brought several properties back on the tax rolls.”

Hukill said the brownfield initiative cleans up contaminated sites and makes them as attractive and inexpensive as undeveloped sites.

“The goal of the program is to level the playing field,” Hukill said, to bring developers to cleaned-up sites.

Money for the  program comes from the state, primarily bonds, he said.

Hukill said efforts are in the works to make sure funding continues for the program. It currently has about $2.6 million available for future  loans and grants.

The  grants and loans, both of which are capped at $1 million, go to local units of government, not developers, Hukill said. The DEQ does not require local governments to come up with matching funds.

The  money pays for the investigation of environmental issues at a site, soil and water samplings, and dealing with contamination at the property, he said.

Not all contaminated sites are suitable for brownfield funding and cleanup efforts, Hukill said. Only those suitable for redevelopment get the funds.

Overall, Hukill said, the DEQ knows of about 13,000 contaminated sites that have not yet been addressed.

An official at the Michigan Environmental Council sees the brownfield program as an important tool in cleaning up polluted property in Michigan.

“This is something that needs to be done, (although) we see some shortcomings in it,” said Sean Hammond, deputy policy director at the Lansing-based organization.

“We need to make sure we’re spending enough money, and we’re spending it wisely.”

He said the council has concerns about leaks at sites where hazardous materials were sealed up rather than removed. The council also remains concerned about polluted sites that have yet to be addressed, Hammond said.

“We have a lot of sites that are abandoned,” he said. “We have to figure out a way to address those sites and protect public health.”

According to the DEQ website, a proposed project “must result in economic benefit for the community through job creation, private investment, and/or increased tax revenue for the community.”

Grants only are awarded “if there is a bona fide development project for the site,” the DEQ says.

Federal money also is available to reclaim contaminated property. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s program helps pay for brownfields assessments, cleanups, loans and environmental job training.

In June, the EPA said, it awarded seven brownfields grants in Michigan, totaling $2.35 million. Those grants are to be used by various counties for the assessment of either hazardous substances or petroleum brownfield sites, or for the cleanup of hazardous substances, the EPA said.

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