Three Brownfield Bills are Before Congress Right Now!
Are three brownfield bills and widely shared bipartisan support a sign that leaders on Capitol Hill are ready to rev up the redevelopment and revitalization agenda?
Now everybody is talking about infrastructure. The redevelopment revolution that began as a small spark in the depths of the Great Recession now promises to spread across the land, and bring with it the opportunity to remake and renew our built-environment. Redevelopment and revitalization has captured the zeitgeist.
More people are beginning to appreciate the opportunity to refit and rebuild America that this moment in history affords. Candidates Clinton and Trump both proposed large infrastructure ramp-ups and spoke to the pent-up demand to upgrade the groundwork undergirding our economy and way of life. President Trump made redevelopment and revitalization the rallying cry of his campaign for the White House by becoming an outspoken champion to rebuild.
In his victory speech on election night President-elect Trump said:
“...we will begin the urgent task of rebuilding our nation and renewing the American dream. I've spent my entire life in business, looking at the untapped potential in projects and in people all over the world.
We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals. We're going to rebuild our infrastructure...and we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.”
Unfortunately, the President’s ‘skinny budget’ proposal was rather anti-revitalization and anti-infrastructure. It certainly did no favors for the popular and hugely successful brownfield program, nor the vital National Priorities List (NPL, better known as the "Superfund" program), nor a bevy of other related programs that pass through EPA to local revitalization efforts. The skinny budget proposes to completely eliminate many planning, community development and badly needed job training programs (38 EPA programs in all). And its makes the long-dwindling Superfund program even slimmer than it already is—slashing $330 million out of the $1.1 billion the program spends annually.
That’s almost a 1/3rd reduction to a Superfund program that already cannot keep up with the growing list of “priority” sites that pose clear dangers to human health and the local environment. More than 1/2 the 400+ sites placed on the original Superfund list in 1983 still remain. On average, it takes nearly 20 years for a site to be removed from the list—but the long project life is not the result of too much capital.
Quite the opposite. The Superfund list continues to grow and cleanups are slow because the program is chronically underfunded. These are the most complicated sites, yet most of these cleanups are scraping along the bottom of a plan that calls for the minimum amount of remediation to put the site into compliance because that will cost the least amount of money. The lowest cost option (shown to be safe) generally wins.
If there is a feasible option, given the extreme resource constraints. At these funding levels many sites are stuck in neutral and, combined with the technology available today, some sites face “technical impracticability.” So, almost every year, the EPA issues a handful of waivers to sites that realistically cannot be cleaned up in a particular way (for example, if polluted groundwater has penetrated bedrock). The site is otherwise cleaned and contained and we make do the best we can.
The professionals doing this work are some of the most excellent resource maximizers in any field. They simply have to be. And this lowest-cost, make-do context is important to consider when weighing the benefit of program cuts at this moment in time, whether capital funding or personnel.
If the skinny budget were passed, cleanups already underway would be halted for insufficient funds with hazardous waste left to fester. Those already managing to work miracles will be challenged to do even more with less—or with none (true magic). More brownfield grant applications will be turned down, even though applications with perfect scores have been turned down in recent years because the program is starved for capital and demand is high.
The skinny budget also proposes to kill many other vital development and infrastructure programs, such as the $3 billion (per year) Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, which allocates around $280 million a year specifically to local infrastructure projects as well as a $221 million Commerce Department grant program that funds local infrastructure and supports manufacturing.
It’s hard to square these proposed cuts with the President’s mandate to rebuild. It’s harder to imagine rebuilding without the brownfield program, to name one, that leverages $18 of private capital invested for every $1 public funding. And it seems like the adminstration understands the value of high leverage, high impact programs. Just this Wednesday the Trump Administration released a $11M grant opportunity for another highly successful EPA program Diesel Emission Reduction Program (DERA), noting: “DERA is considered one of the most cost-effective federal programs, averaging more than $13 in health and economic benefits for every $1 in funding.”
Getting more out of these low-cost, high-return, pro-investment government programs would seemingly be a cost-effective and multi-benefit path forward. Rolling up the sleeves and working down the Superfund list of 1,000+ priority sites, rather than continuing to let it grow, is the kind of investment there has been strong bipartisan support for in the past. Afterall, cleaning up Superfund sites can raise property values more than a mile away.
And now leaders on Capitol Hill seem to have caught the revitalization zeitgeist. Three separate brownfield bills were introduced into Congress before its recess.
Two terrific House subcommittee hearings both passed the bipartisan brownfield ball around beautifully. Everyone has brownfields in their district as well as folks back home working everyday on redevelopment issues, so it's an issue many members have experience with and can speak to with direct knowledge. The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s hearing “Building a 21st Century Infrastructure for America: Revitalizing American Communities through the Brownfields Program” provided wonderful testimony with powerful examples and pragmatic rationales for the public sector’s role in revitalization. The following week a Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing, “Discussion Draft: Brownfields Reauthorization,” also featured positive bipartisan back and forth in mutual support of the program. At one point, it was joked that there was too much bipartisanship going on and it shouldn’t get out—as such cooperation might ruin public perception of Congress.
These two subcommittee hearings came in conjunction with two new brownfield bills. One is co-sponsored Reps. Esty (D-CT) and Katko (R-NY) (the Brownfields Reauthorization Act of 2017—H.R.1758), while the other is co-sponsored by Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) and Paul Tonko (D-NY) (the Brownfields Authorization Increase Act of 2017—H.R.1747).
In the Senate, Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK)—former mayor and longtime champion of the brownfield program—re-introduced a version of his brownfield bill that stalled in the last Congress (the Build Act—S.822) with four co-sponsors, Senators Markey (D-MA), Rounds, (R-SD), Booker (D-NJ) and Crapo (R-ID).
These bills will be taken up when Congress returns from recess and goes back to work next week. Contact your representatives and tell them to vote for brownfields, infrastructure and the revitalization of America.
Watch Senator Inhofe's message in support of the Brownfields Program:
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