At least $10 million is coming to boost Brownfields statewide
Michelle Spohnheimer of the City of Marshallton, Iowa, and Dave Nobel of the City of Ottawa, Illinois look over Scissortail Park, a result of Brownfields funding, from the Oklahoma City Conference Center during the national 2022 Brownfields Conference in Oklahoma City Wednesday. Photo by Kelly J Bostian / KJBOutdoors
By KELLY BOSTIAN
For the CCOF
A bright spotlight shined on Brownfields in Oklahoma this week but those closest to that light agree the name is something relatively few people recognize or understand.
Beneficiaries of Brownfields programs are all around, however, and more are on the way.
The Brownfields 2022 National Conference, the Environmental Protection Agency’s largest national annual gathering, wrapped up in Oklahoma City Friday with indications its programs will grab more attention in months and years to come. The conference brought together more than 2,200 municipal, state, federal and tribal leaders, and industry and agency experts for educational workshops and networking as the program sees a funding increase like none in its 30-year history.
In his short keynote address, EPA Administrator Michael Regan described new EPA funding as “historic” and “a really big deal.” The 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law channeled $60 billion to the EPA and the Inflation Reduction Act signed Tuesday pumps an additional $40 billion to the agency with environmental equality and climate change emphases. The funding will allow EPA to “deliver results for the people and the planet in a way we have never been able to before,” he said.
The immediate Brownfields program share of that funding is $1.5 billion over the next five years.
Brownfields is the on-the-ground working side of the EPA that, rather than focusing on compliance, aids communities with the recovery of polluted and contaminated sites. Brownfields projects restore vacant buildings with asbestos abatement and lead paint issues, and provide tools for recovering lands contaminated by old oil production operations and abandoned gas stations.
“Community revitalization is what the Brownfields program is all about,” Regan said. “Over the past 30 years, EPA has invested roughly $35 billion into revitalizing Brownfields and cleaned up 9,500 sites. And in doing so it is estimated we created around 183,000 jobs.”
Several EPA officials at the conference said Oklahoma is recognized among the top states for Brownfields work. The state seized upon the program early in its history and its collaborative efforts between communities and state, federal, and tribal entities served as models for others.
“It is among the best because it has a such long successful history of having Brownfields success,” said Carlton Waterhouse, deputy assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management.
Oklahoma Brownfields coordinated through EPA Region 6 and administered through the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, Oklahoma Corporation Commission, and the City of Tulsa and Oklahoma City, will see a nearly $10 million boost, according to Aron Samwel, DEQ Brownfields program manager.
The boost put $3.9 million into the DEQ revolving load fund program, another $3.9 toward the Oklahoma City program, and $2 million to the Corporation Commission’s assessment programs, she said.
Corporation Commission Brownfields Program Manager Jeff Myers said communications are well underway to distribute the $2 million in assessment grants for oil and gas production sites and abandoned gas stations.
“We are working with a bunch of cities and towns and tribes, trying to get a bunch of sites into our queue for when that money drops in October,” he said.
Madeline Dillner, the Commission’s Brownfields project manager, said she visited with officials and town councils from Guymon to Muskogee in the week prior to the conference.
Assessments often “get the ball rolling,” they said. Smaller communities often lack that initial $30,000 or $40,000 to define an issue. The agency also can guide them toward additional funding and experts to help get the work done.
One of their favorite sites is Okemah, where 45 abandoned gas stations are assessed and in progress for recovery. Two of the properties are finished with land for sale in the main population center now, Dillner said.
“It could become a coffee shop or an art gallery,” she said.
The First Americans Museum, which involved multiple agencies and governments, is prominent among the state’s projects. It was recognized at the conference with the national 2022 Phoenix Award for the best Brownfields project in the United States.
The museum was built on the site of an oilfield that produced 60 percent of the nation’s oil in the 1920s. “It’s a big success story,” Myers said.
The site of the conference, including adjacent Scissortail Park, the Convention Center, and lodging at the historic Skirvin Hotel in downtown Oklahoma City all are sites created with Brownfields assistance, he said.
Althea Foster, Brownfields Region 6 Section Chief, and a 30-year EPA veteran, said the new funding is indeed something that is sure to increase public recognition of the Brownfields name.
“I don’t actually look at it as doing something for EPA, I look at it as doing something for the communities we serve,” she said. “It’s a historic opportunity for us to increase the resources that these communities are getting, and it’s a historic opportunity to introduce new communities to Brownfields and address longstanding issues.”
The section maintains a map of Brownfields and other active sites and she said she expects changes ahead.
“If you filter for Brownfields site today and come back in a couple of years and filter for Brownfields I promise you will see the difference this funding has made in people’s lives,” she said.