Federal Grants Fund Brownfield Multipliers: Clean Up, Land Use and Jobs

By NICHOLAS BOKE/ecoRI News contributor

PAWTUCKET, R.I. — Festival Pier, with its attractively landscaped open space, canoe-and-kayak launch site and boat landing on the east bank of the Seekonk River, was the perfect place to announce the awarding of $1.2 million in Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) brownfield funding to Rhode Island.

Just a few years ago, the site, which had served as an oil-tank farm from the early 1900s to 1970, had been awarded a $200,000 EPA brownfield restoration grant because of the contaminants flowing into the river from the former storage tank area.

So when national, state and local officials gathered by the river in mid-June to announce the $400,000 EPA Assessment Grant to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and $820,000 EPA Revolving Loan Fund Program Grant to the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank, they were literally standing on top of a success story.

Not only, however, was the location attractive and welcoming, but it also provided an example of cutting-edge thinking about remediation. The dozens of aspen trees that rippled in the gusty breezes were certainly picturesque, but they also served an important purpose in the restoration itself.

“The aspens were planted as part of the clean-up effort called phytoremediation,” Boston-based EPA project officer Jessica Dominquez explained before the June 13 ceremony began. “This is a species of tree that finalizes the clean-up process, using microbes to break down any remaining petroleum contaminants.”

In fact, such a multi-faceted approach to brownfield cleanups seems to be an integral part of the process. While DEM director Janet Coit told the crowd that “Rhode Island is a real leader in brownfield clean up” — having cleaned up more than 700 sites in recent decades with the help of seven EPA grants totaling more than $3 million — she, like the other speakers, emphasized that such efforts serve a variety of purposes.

The most obvious result of the rehabilitation of such brownfields — locations contaminated by the thousands of industries that once dotted the New England landscape — is their transformation into spots like Festival Pier, Providence’s Button Hole Golf Course for youth and the disabled, and the 3-acre parcel on Valley Street that became the home of WaterFire Providence.

Before such sites can be remediated, however, the specific nature of the problem must be assessed and solutions proposed. Thus, while the money allotted to the Infrastructure Bank will be used to generate clean-up and redevelopment projects, the DEM funds will be used to assess the needs at various sites.

The DEM grant will fund Arctic Village in West Warwick, the Pawtucket Transit Hub area, the Central Falls Transit Hub area and Providence’s neighborhood of Olneyville; 10 percent of the money will be used to remediate other high-priority sites.

DEM principal environmental scientist Cynthia Gianfrancesco said after the ceremony that Pawtucket and Central Falls have the largest number of contaminated sites, because of the former concentration of industries in those cities.

In addition to the projects’ environmental benefits and the fact that they bring contaminated property back into public use, there is another benefit. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., emphasized, as did other speakers, the economic impact of brownfield remediation.

“We need jobs, and these provide that opportunity,” Reed said. “For every dollar spent through these EPA grants, $18 is generated. In Rhode Island, these grants have generated $29 million and 751 jobs over the years.”

Jeff Diehl, executive director of the Infrastructure Bank — formerly known as the Rhode Island Clean Water Finance Agency, and expanded its responsibilities last June — emphasized the importance of using EPA money to leverage other funds to support remediation projects. The Infrastructure Bank, Diehl said, will use the $800,000 from the EPA to leverage money from a variety of investors, thereby working with the DEM and other state and private organizations to increase the impact of the federal grant.

Rep, David Cicilline, D-R.I., expressed appreciation to the EPA for offering projects like this, noting that the state has more than 10,000 brownfield sites. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., noted the importance of environmental projects like this, and the opposition in Congress that must be overcome to provide financial support for such work.

EPA regional administrator Curt Spaulding put Rhode Island figures into a larger context. He noted that in New England the brownfield program has awarded 374 assessment grants totaling $99 million, 73 revolving loan fund grants totaling $90 million and 261 clean-up grants totaling $61 million.

“In total, the result was 1.4 billion public and private dollars doing real things for real people,” he said.

Ongoing EPA support for brownfield remediation has recently been paralleled by state funding. Last September, DEM invited proposals for projects that would involve the redevelopment of brownfields while also contributing to the state’s economic health. In December, Brownfields Remediation and Economic Development Fund matching grants totaling $3.7 million to clean up 14 contaminated properties were announced.

Grants ranging from $20,000 to $700,000 were awarded to municipalities, nonprofits and private organizations. Each award covered 80 percent of the cost, the remainder to be matched by the applicant. While Providence and Pawtucket were awarded a number of grants, funding also went to West Warwick, Barrington, Bristol, East Providence and Westerly. This state grant program came from a $5 million Clean Water, Open Space and Healthy Communities bond issue approved by voters in 2014.

These parallel efforts can’t come soon enough. “We have so many sites in Rhode Island that need to be investigated,” Gianfrancesco said, “that we have to have ways to leverage these funds.”

Collaboration is crucial, Dominguez noted. “The DEM went in for the assessment grant and the Infrastructure Bank for the clean-up and redevelopment grant to move the projects along,” she said. “We were hoping we would both get the grants so we could work together. It was a fortuitous year.”

Providence resident Nicholas Boke is a freelance writer and international education consultant. He runs a blog called Waiting for the Barbarian.