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New York Advocates See Need For Improved State and Federal Brownfield Programs

Federal lawmakers from New York are showing their support for a piece of legislation that aims to jumpstart development and cleanup efforts on contaminated land.

Recently, Democrats U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillbrand and Congressman Paul Tonko met with local leaders in Albany’s Sheridan Hollow neighborhood to announce their support for the Brownfields Utilization, Investment, and Local Development – or BUILD – Act.

Brownfields are areas of contaminated land common in older industrial communities. Like Sheridan Hollow in Albany, waterfront neighborhoods in communities along the Hudson often grapple with contaminated sites.

The BUILD Act reauthorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields Program, and modernizes and improves on elements of the program to provide support for communities working to redevelop brownfields. The bill would allow non-profit organizations to apply for site assessment grants for planning efforts on redevelopment projects.

Currently, non-profits can only qualify for federal dollars for site remediation. The law also would allow municipalities to apply for site assessment grants that were obtained before the creation of the EPA’s Brownfields Program in 1995.

Susan Cotner is Executive Director of the Affordable Housing Partnership and a board member of the Community Loan Fund of the Capital Region, a non-profit that provides loans to community development organizations.

Cotner said that many communities in the region seeking redevelopment are encountering similar contamination issues at similar locations.

"It's the factory buildings, it's our downtown neighborhoods," said Cotner. "The flexibility of this money is really helpful for people looking to rebuild."

Katherine Nadeau, Policy Director at group Environmental Advocates of New York, said that the possibility of more federal funding to assist New York communities remediate brownfield sites comes in a time of need. Nadeau considers New York’s own brownfield programs, which mainly provide tax credits to developers to clean up contaminated sites.

"So it's literally just the state writing checks," said Nadeau. "And since the program went on the books we've spent more than a billion dollars in this state to clean up just about one hundred sites. That's a really poor return on investment, we're not getting what we should out of this program." 

Reforming New York’s brownfields programs has also been a focus of state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who is pushing for reforms before the expiration of the Brownfield Cleanup Program, which is up 2015 unless it’s extended.

In an interview on WAMC’s Capitol Connection in April, DiNapoli told Alan Chartock that he’d like to see state funding for brownfield redevelopment head to the communities that need it most.

"We're suggesting there's a way to perhaps more clearly target the tax incentive part of the program to communities where in fact without an incentive there wouldn't be economic development. We've seen some of these credits go to properties that are in areas that are already very economically viable and probably didn't need that tax advantage," said DiNapoli.

Katherine Nadeau said that any efforts from the federal government to assist communities with redevelopment and planning efforts while New York reforms its own brownfield programs are welcome.

"New York needs to reform our brownfields program and any help that we get from the federal government to revitalize those areas will go that much further to restoring the upstate economy," said Nadeau.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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