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EPA Cleanup Grants Divide Urban, Rural Communities

June 18, 2018, 11:16 AM

Fewer but bigger federal grants to clean up rundown industrial sites have some rural areas delaying redevelopment plans, while richer cities turn to law firms and nonprofits to boost their odds of landing the funds.

The Environmental Protection Agency expects to award grants to fewer communities because it is increasing the maximum dollar amount for individual grants while the program’s budget is expected to hold steady. Some grant applicants are seeking less-competitive state grants, or they may have to wait longer for redevelopment funding, communities and private firms told Bloomberg Environment.

Reusing or redeveloping the sites, known as brownfields, is often complicated by contamination from past use. The sites may or may not be contaminated. Their use or redevelopment is often complicated by contamination.

“We predict that rural areas will not be as competitive as urban areas, and [distributing fewer awards will] consequently slow down most rural brownfield redevelopment projects,” Logan B. Smith, senior program manager at Siskiyou Economic Development, a nonprofit organization based in rural Yreka, Calif., told Bloomberg Environment in an email. “Our fastest time for brownfield redevelopment has been five years, and our longest project is currently 20 years and counting.”

The EPA provides annual brownfield cleanup and assessment grants to encourage the reuse of those sites. The agency awarded about $57 million in brownfield cleanup and assessment grants in fiscal year 2017 and about $54 million in fiscal year 2018.

“This is a double-edged sword,” Sarah Sieloff, executive director of the Center for Creative Land Recycling in Oakland, Calif., which helps communities redevelop abandoned or vacant commercial and industrial properties, told Bloomberg Environment. Some communities may look at the new, higher payoff and decide that it’s worth it to apply for the federal agency’s grants, she said, but others may be put off by the amount of competition.

The EPA brownfield grants have become more competitive in recent years, Matt Ward, chief executive officer of consulting firm Sustainable Strategies DC in Washington, told Bloomberg Environment. Ward’s clients include local governments seeking grants.

“We have had many clients who scored in the evaluation system at the very top range,” Ward said. “If it were college or high school, you would be getting a solid ‘A,’ and they’re still losing these grants.”

Grant Funds Go Up

The upper limit for cleanup grants the EPA can award to individual sites increased from $200,000 to $500,000 as a result of the 2018 omnibus spending bill (H.R.1625), signed into law in March. Grant applicants can ask the agency for a waiver, raising the limit to $650,000 per site.

The average dollar amount for individual EPA grants for brownfield cleanup or assessment, announced from fiscal years 2014 through 2018, has been about $235,700. On average, about 147 entities have received the grants each year over that time, according to a Bloomberg Environment analysis of EPA data.

The 2018 legislation also created multi-purpose grants, which can be used for multiple functions, including site assessment, planning, and cleanup at one or more sites. The upper limit for those grants is $1 million each.

The EPA is spending the summer incorporating those changes into the next round of grant requirements while potential applicants weigh their options. The EPA expects to issue guidelines for the next round of grants this fall.

Strong Candidates

Leah Yasenchak, co-owner of Brownfield Redevelopment Solutions Inc. in Medford Lakes, N.J., said communities that have more brownfield sites to redevelop are more likely to come back to a firm like hers to seek help. Communities with smaller sites, such as shuttered dry cleaners and gas stations, are unlikely to seek large federal grants.

“You need to be able to show a distressed population, a pattern of environmental injustice, a pattern of brownfield sites,” she told Bloomberg Environment. Yasenchak’s firm writes grant applications and helps clients manage them.

Milwaukee consistently applies for brownfield grants each year, Dave Misky, assistant executive director-secretary of the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Milwaukee, told Bloomberg Environment. The authority is deciding whether to change its approach to the grants this year as a result of the potentially higher dollar amounts.

“We may decide internally that we may not go after as many grant opportunities,” Misky said. “We may put all our eggs in one basket.”

Milwaukee has honed its skills at applying for brownfield grants, Misky said, but other communities need assistance.

“The potential for larger resources will drive communities to ask for help,” Ward said.

Stiff Competition

Yasenchak and Ward’s firms help communities get and manage grant awards. Some communities find it difficult to get the grants without outside help, Yasenchak said.

“We have seen interest in professional grant writers for these grants increasing over the past couple of years because they have become so competitive,” she said.

Yasenchak is concerned that smaller communities are turning away from federal grants in favor of state or local grants. New Jersey’s brownfield grant program isn’t competitive, she said, but it takes applicants longer to get funding.

Patrick Krechowski, of counsel at GrayRobinson PA in Jacksonville, Fla., told Bloomberg Environment that people in Florida are becoming more aware of state-level grant and incentive opportunities.

Communities and developers are also forming more public-private partnerships to get brownfields redeveloped, he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sylvia Carignan in Washington at scarignan@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bloombergenvironment.com