As the American economy shifts away from heavy industry, each closed factory risks becoming a brownfield. That’s a site that contains potentially hazardous materials. For the past decade, the federal government has provided help in assessing and cleaning these properties. It has proved to be one of the most popular environmental programs. It’s giving hope to small towns that need help in remaking their landscapes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Allee reports:
As the American economy shifts away from heavy industry, each closed factory
risks becoming a brownfield. That’s a site that contains potentially
hazardous materials. For the past decade, the federal government has provided help in assessing and
cleaning these properties. It has proved to be one of the most popular environmental programs. It’s
giving hope to small towns that need help in remaking their landscapes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Allee reports:
When a Rust Belt city loses another factory, the townspeople don’t suffer
just from the loss of jobs. They’re often stuck with crumbling buildings or even polluted land. Not to mention, the local economy isn’t strong enough to fix them up.
It’s a dilemma familiar to East Moline, a small Illinois town that sits
along the banks of the Mississippi River. Since the early 80s, the town’s lost thousands of jobs in the farm machinery
industry. Rich Keehner is the City of East Moline’s assistant administrator. He says
there is a plan for the industrial riverfront.
“Right now there’s a movement to relocate or pull industrial uses from the
river. And then of course turn that riverfront property into bike paths or some
recreational activities to improve our quality of life. And that’s exactly
what we’re doing here.”
It’s a simple idea: move industry away from the river and work with
developers to make it an attractive place to play or even live. But it’s just not that easy. Keehner says developers won’t build on these sites until it’s clear what kind
of pollution, if any, might be there.
Testing the area’s soil and water can get expensive, so sites can remain
empty for years. Meanwhile, developers look for greener pastures. Really, they can just build on farmland instead.
During the past decade, the U.S. EPA’s paid for pollution testing at hundreds
of sites. The agency also funds some cleanup and other costs. East Moline’s used several grants to develop eighty acres of riverfront donated
by the John Deere Company.
With the Mississippi riverbank at his back, Keehner points out some new
houses developed on the site.
“It’s got some great amenitities, located next to the bike path. You
can just wake up any time night or day and look out at the river. And your
neighbors are very limited; it’s very peaceful.”
The district also boasts a small light house, a lot of park space, and some
wetlands areas. Keehner says brownfields grants funded about six percent of the project’s
total cost. That doesn’t sound like much, but the money’s played a key role. He says private money couldn’t be secured until there was progress on the
A lot of environmentalists and civic groups applaud the program even though
a lot of credit goes to someone they often criticize. Namely, President
George Bush. His critics admit the brownfields program is one of the brighter spots of
his environmental policy.
In 2002, President Bush signed legislation that expanded the program’s
funding and breadth. Alan Front is the vice president of the Trust for Public Land, a
“The administration, ever since signing that bill, has budgeted about 200
million dollars a year to make this program really vibrant and so not only
have they created the wallet, but they’ve filled it in a way that really
benefits communities around the country.”
Front says the expansion’s brought a tighter focus on the environmental
needs of smaller towns. Apart from the grants, there’s another reason for the program’s popularity. The EPA trains city administrators to use federal brownfield money to
leverage private dollars.
Charles Bartsch has been teaching such courses for ten years.
He says, to compete with larger cities, smaller towns need to show they
understand their local economies.
“I suggest to towns what they should do first of all is to decide what their
competitive economic niche is.”
That means, developing around a community asset, like East Moline’s tried
with its attractive riverfront. Bartsch says, for all the progress small town administrators have made, they’re still pretty isolated. He says they need to cast a wide social net, so
they can find the best advice.
“The key thing is less knowing how to do it yourself, but more knowing who to
reliably call to walk through ideas and walk through options.”
The brownfields program does have its critics. They say it’s tilted in favor
of land development over open space and they worry about how much oversight
there is of environmental testing.
Back at the East Moline site, it’s easy to see why small towns are
participating. Residents there now have more access to the river, bike paths, parks, and,
for some people, new homes. East Moline, and a lot of other small towns like it, are seeking even more brownfields money.
They’ve got a lot of other sites that want a chance at a new life.
For the GLRC, I’m Shawn Allee.