WASHINGTON —Four years after Congress reauthorized the EPA’s brownfields program, House lawmakers met with city and county officials from across the country to discuss what can be changed before the next reauthorization deadline in 2023.

”How can we sustain this level of funding and secondly, what can we improve?” asked ranking member David McKinley, R-W.Va., during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on Tuesday.  

McKinley’s question to the panel of experts appearing before the committee guided much of the hearing on restoring potentially contaminated lands sites. 

Brownfields are sites that were formerly used for industrial or commercial purposes and are not currently in use because of real or perceived contamination. They are usually plots of land on which commercial enterprises created pollution or soil contamination. Examples of brownfields can be former gas stations, metal facilities or laundromats. The EPA estimates that there are at least 450,00 brownfield sites nationwide. Sites require assessment and possible restoration under the program.

“Each site helps tell the story of that community’s economic past,” said committee Chairman Paul Tonko, D-N.Y. “But today we need to examine how we can make these sites part of our district’s economic futures.”

The brownfields program has changed the way contaminated property is dealt with in the 27 years since it was created, according to the EPA. Projects leveraged $20.13 per every EPA dollar expended to revitalize a site. Assessment, cleanup and restoration of a site require hundreds of employees to create a new, economically viable structure on the land. The EPA says more than 170,724 jobs have been leveraged nationwide as a result of this program. 

Congress reauthorized the brownfields program in early 2018 after it lapsed in 2006. This most recent law set the next reauthorization date for 2023 and increased the cap on each site’s grant to $500,000 with the option to waive the cap and increase the grant amount to $650,000 per site. 

Lawmakers kept the 2023 deadline in mind during their discussion. 

McKinley said he applauds the bipartisan infrastructure bill that granted the brownfields program $1.5 billion but now the concern is sustaining that level of funding and improving the program. 

“We want to make sure this remains a public private partnership,” he said. “We don’t want this to be a government bailout.”

Paul Ford, business development director at Frontier Group of Companies, said in response that the committee should consider allowing private for-profit applicants to access funds in a similar way to how some state programs grant money to public entities because he says those private companies have the ability to “leverage those government dollars into private investment and job creation.” 

New York, among other states, has a state-specific brownfield program that focuses on community led initiatives to revitalize sites. More states may be able to develop their own brownfield programs through multipurpose grants from the EPA, which allowed New York City to provide funding to local governments and nonprofits that know the issues in their area, according to Lee Ilan, chief of planning in the mayor’s office of Environmental Remediation.  

Most committee members agreed that technical assistance grants to small communities, especially rural and low-income areas are vital. These grants allow communities without resources like a planning department or grant writing office, to receive expert planning advice on revitalizing their lands.

“Most of our small towns and, in particular, our county and the rest of the small rural counties, we simply don’t have the infrastructure to even begin the projects,” said Michael Largent, a Whitman county commissioner in Washington state. “We don’t have somebody in our county that could even initiate this program.” 

When the city of Palouse had a brownfield problem, Largent said the outside assistance they received from the EPA in applying for a grant and assessing the land made it possible for that site to be restored.

Jason Seyler, brownfields coordinator at the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, said these communities would not have been able to hire experts to assist in these processes themselves.

“The community was really able to see the effects of this planning effort and visualize what this property could become and it was just phenomenal to see that transformation in the belief in the community,” Seyler said.