Hope runs high to retain prized EPA brownfields program

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Editor's note: The fourth to last paragraph of this article was updated in full on March 21, 2017, to correct information about the financial status of MassDevelopment's brownfields program. 

PITTSFIELD — For a developer, there was a lot not to like about buildings in North Adams.

Take the floorboards. Years of industrial use at the Greylock Mill along Route 2 — a former 240,000-square-foot factory space — left wood contaminated with petroleum.

That gave Salvatore Perry pause, as development director for Latent Products. But today, the New York company's vision for GreylockWorks is moving ahead, with an event space set to open this fall.

Concern about contamination led Perry to Melissa Provencher at the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission in Pittsfield. Since 2004, Provencher has worked to use "brownfields" funding from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to get properties with dirty histories off the disabled list.

"After a 15-minute call with her, it was clear there was a desire and a precedent," Perry told The Eagle.

It delivered an "epiphany," he said. The project could be done after all.

"It's been critical, absolutely critical," Perry said of brownfields funding received through the commission.

Around Berkshire County, municipalities and developers tell similar stories.

But the future of the EPA's 22-year-old brownfields program is uncertain.

Recently, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt told a gathering of mayors he values the work the grant program does to assess and fix environmental problems that stand in the way of new uses for old industrial properties.

At the same time, though, a White House budget proposal that emerged would cut EPA grants to states by nearly a third and potentially zero out brownfields money, according to the Washington Post.

GUARDED OPTIMISM

The program's uncertain future concerns Provencher and other municipal officials in the Berkshires, a region home to many sidelined factories and polluted commercial sites.

In his session with mayors, Pruitt invited people to speak in support of keeping the brownfields campaign going.

"We plan to do that. We hope that will help to spare the program," Provencher said. "We're cautiously optimistic that Scott Pruitt has said it's a program worth saving and is willing to fight for."

In its 13 years, the commission's brownfields program has distributed $5,675,000 in EPA grants to 36 sites in the county. It has $1.4 million in pending applications to the EPA that Provencher believes to be secure.

But it has spent all of its regional assessment funding and is awaiting grant decisions due in May or June.

"It's been a successful program, and an important program," Provencher said. "But it's a small fraction of what we could have done. It really depends on what our federal government does."

Nate Joyner, permitting coordinator in Pittsfield's office of Community Development, said the city has often tapped brownfields funding, including work to clean up contaminated soil at the site of a new Dewey Avenue park alongside a narrow reach of the Housatonic River.

The city recently landed a $350,000 grant directly from the EPA to assess the extent of contamination at the site of a former dry cleaners at 35 Federal St. The grant will enable the city to gauge environmental hazards that remain after the property's demolition.

Joyner said that without the EPA support, the city would simply not know about hidden hazards — keeping a barrier up against possible future use.

"There's quite a bill associated with these activities," he said of cleanups. "It allows work that otherwise would not get done. They are critical for redeveloping these old spaces."

He noted that as a former property developer, President Donald Trump may appreciate what the brownfields program achieves.

"I'm hoping it hits a soft spot with this administration," Joyner said. "But it's Congress making these decisions — and they have sharp axes."

BRINGING SITES BACK

Jennifer Tabakin, town manager in Great Barrington, said brownfields money is helping her community remove a stain from a prime development site — also a former dry cleaners.

Solvents used for decades at the former Reid Cleaners are believed to have contaminated the soil, discouraging many prospective buyers. The vacant property, still owned by the Reid family, has been on the market for years, Tabakin said, and is a choice location for redevelopment in the economically vibrant community.

To help address the stalemate over contamination, the town landed a $95,000 grant from a brownfields assessment program run by the MassWorks Infrastructure Program, as well as backing from EPA funds overseen by the planning commission.

That work will enable prospective buyers to understand the environmental risks present, and to figure out the cost of removing them. Private lenders typically shun that work.

"Our goal is to bring the site back into productive use," Tabakin said.

Continued backing from the EPA, she said, is essential.

"We have many more needs that are not being met," she said. "We'd like to see an increased commitment. Any remediation money the EPA can provide is critical for economic development."

Though the brownfields program deals with historical misuse of land, Tabakin and others note how vital it is to future uses.

"We are not talking about sites that are not prime real-estate sites," Tabakin said. "They will absolutely be developed. It's the public money that we need to step up. The return on it is huge. It's going to be good business."

Karla Rothstein, director of design for Latent Productions, who co-owns the firm with Perry, knows that firsthand from her work in North Adams.

"The grants enable these sites to be productive and contribute to the future," she said.

NOT A REGULATOR


As the Trump administration takes aim at what it sees as burdensome regulations, backers of the brownfields program stress that it awards money, not penalties.

The state Department of Environmental Protection handles regulatory work at contaminated sites in Massachusetts.

Aside from spurring development in a region hungry for economic gains, Provencher notes that EPA funding improves public health and safety by addressing contamination.

"We've had sites that were considered an imminent health hazard," she said.

In some cases, the grants are able to clear properties of suspicions they contain hazards, when in fact that isn't the case.

"It's a really legitimate issue in terms of how these sites move forward, if there is a concern. A smart developer is going to want to know the extent of it before they get into it," Provencher said.

MassDevelopment, the state's economic development and finance agency, also runs a brownfields program that continues to provide loans to private-sector developers in the Berkshires. The fund received a $45 million infusion from the state last August. To qualify for its backing, a site must have a clear development potential. 

The DEP itself also applies for EPA brownfields money, competing against other states for available money.

Provencher said the first indication about federal support for brownfields grants will come late this year. That's when the EPA will award funding for applications submitted this fall from across the country, including Pittsfield.

Then again, word may come sooner, she said, if that funding round is canceled.

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.




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