More money sought to clean up brownfields

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The site of the Grand Rapids Urban Market before environmental cleanup. Image: Department of Environmental Quality.

By Agnes Bao
Capital News Service

A new $79 million-a-year proposal from Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder would increase funding to protect the state’s environment, including $45 million to clean up and redevelop contaminated sites.

Snyder plans to generate the money by increasing landfill dumping fees from 36 cents to $4.75 per ton, also known as “tipping fees.”

Jeff Hukill, the brownfield coordinator at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), said he is not aware of any opposition to the proposal at this early stage.

“As more people are becoming aware of it, I could see some groups having issues with where the money is coming from,” Hukill said.

Brownfield sites are abandoned land with contaminated soil, groundwater or both.

It’s hard to estimate how much money it would take for the state to clean up all abandoned brownfields, as the cost depends on the condition of a specific site, he said. “Some require $5 – to $10,000 to do something very small, and some lands require hundreds of thousands of dollars to address severe risks.”

The state’s brownfield redevelopment program aims at improving the environment, protecting public health, reusing infrastructure and creating economic opportunities, according to the DEQ.

The Grand Rapids Urban Market after environmental cleanup. Image: Department of Environmental Quality.

James Clift, the policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council, said manufacturers and other businesses benefit from the program.

“Sometimes brownfield sites are located in better areas because they were originally chosen by businesses to develop markets,” Clift said.

“A lot of times, those sites are close to transit lines and train tracks that make them good manufacturing sites,” he said.

Andy Such, the director of regulatory and environmental policy at the Michigan Manufacturers Association, said in terms of the site selection, questions like “greenfield vs. brownfield: which is better for manufacturing facilities?” is not really a decision for manufacturers.

Such said the decision depends more on transportation, worker availability and other specific factors, rather than on a general choice between greenfield and brownfield. Greenfields are previously undeveloped lands.

However, Clift said redeveloping brownfields requires overcoming more difficulties than developing greenfields, including contamination assessment and funding. “Most of the state funds have been used up now. There is not as much available in the state resources.”

“We would like to see the governor’s proposal move forward, and to see legislators provide more funding for the brownfield site redevelopment project,” he said.

On Jan. 30, Grayling Northern Market, a brownfield redevelopment project in Crawford County, received a $175,000 grant and a $175,000 loan from DEQ.

Julie Lowe, the Crawford County’s brownfield redevelopment coordinator at DEQ, said it is Grayling’s first brownfield project,which has other funding as well.

Lowe said funding and contamination clean-up are the main challenges for the project.

In terms of funding, she said, “We would like to see some similar path in the future so that we can continue to do great work for our community.”

Elsewhere, the Grand Rapids Urban Market is a brownfield redevelopment program finished in 2012.

The market was redeveloped on a site that included five underground storage tanks, six unsafe buildings and about 52,000 tons of contaminated soil.

The market is a mixed-use facility including vendors, restaurants, education facilities and entrepreneurship opportunities.

Kara Wood, the executive director of the Grand Rapids brownfield project, said the Urban Market is a year-round enterprise funded mostly by local tax increment financing.

Wood said one of challenges for the project was “to get the funding from the state” rather than  local government.

Furthermore, she said putting several funding sources together is a challenge. “We worked really hard to build the relationships with the DEQ and Environmental Protection Agency to apply for and receive grant and loan funding.”

Based on past experiences, Grand Rapids “is trying to increase the amount of property that is developed as the result of the brownfield program,” Wood said.

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