Some 4,000 potentially contaminated and abandoned parcels of land littered across Iowa could be flipped for economic development, but hardly any of them with government money that exists for such a cleanup.
Iowa cities and counties are not tapping into programs that would pay the costs of cleaning up these blighted, brownfield areas. Some city council members and others in local government leadership do not even know the programs exist, an IowaWatch investigation revealed.
When they do, many avoid the federal government’s brownfield cleanup program because applying for a grant has proved to be a daunting, unwanted task. A paid consultant usually is needed to wade through the dense, time-consuming paperwork. Cities and towns do not have the money needed to apply.
“The council has become hesitant to fund things out that ‘aren’t real’ because brownfields is about perceived contamination,” Chuck Betts, executive director of the Keokuk Chamber of Commerce, said about Keokuk’s city leaders. “They are not particularly interested in funding something to see if there is a problem.”
Moreover, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which funds state programs like Iowa’s, does not measure the extent to which its program reduces environmental risk, the IowaWatch investigation showed. The agency relies on trusting local recipients for its oversight.
“We do not review all investigations done with our grants because they are local projects or voluntary projects,” said Susan Klein, EPA Region 7 brownfield coordinator. “The key thing in all of this is voluntary.”
In Iowa, federal dollars for environmental assessment are available from two sources:
A brownfield is a site that is or potentially could be contaminated. In Iowa, asbestos is the most common type of contamination in brownfield projects. Lead-based paint is a major concern, too, because of its connection to elevated blood levels and accompanying illnesses in people.
“The grant application is extremely dense, it’s incredible,” Betts said as he flipped through a large packet of papers serving as an exemplary grant application. “I gotta’ believe we can streamline this process because it will take at least a year to write … you almost have to hire out.”
Steve Prideaux of HR Green, an environmental consulting company widely used in Iowa, said the firm typically charges a flat fee of $7,000 to write a grant.
Klein said some cities and towns would rather work with their state program, and a handful do. “Most cities don’t want the federal government to walk into their neighborhood,” she said.
The number of brownfield sites in Iowa, or even nationally, is not counted. The 4,000 for Iowa is an estimate. A 2004 report by U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated 450,000 to 1 million nationally.
Mel Pins, the brownfield director at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said getting an accurate count is like asking the state health department, “how many alcoholics are there in Iowa?” If you could even count how many people attend Alcoholic Anonymous meetings you would have only a small fraction of all alcoholics.
“People will call me and say, Mel, how many brownfields do I have in my city?” Pins said. “I say, how many do you think you have?”
The best way to find brownfields, he said, is to perform what he calls a windshield survey, or essentially driving down streets with a city economic development person and looking at what land isn’t selling.
Pins tries to get word to cities about the available funding but often to an indifferent audience.
In July, a small collection of city council and economic development officials from Iowa gathered for a brownfield grant-writing workshop held by the EPA at the Coralville Marriott & Conference Center, which is situated in a former brownfield. Pins said he sent almost 3,000 emailed invitations.
Only 13 people attended. Pins said municipal leaders are missing out on a program he tailored specifically to help the public sector and nonprofits.
Fort Dodge example
Fort Dodge, in northwest Iowa, used Iowa DNR brownfield funds to help keep a local Fareway grocery store downtown.
“Whenever we have a developer come and say they want to construct a new building, rather than sending them to greenfields, we look for infill development like a brownfield site to clean up,” Vickie Reeck, community development manager in Fort Dodge, said.
The funds supported soil and groundwater tests in a dilapidated two-block area in downtown, Reeck said. The city used $5,346 in DNR brownfield grants to assess the site and inspect for asbestos in nearby buildings and the DNR spent $21,000 for its own site assessment. A 33,000-square-foot new Fareway store opened in 2011.
The EPA swears by a level playing field when it comes to its selection process. Cities as big as Detroit, with an estimated 706,600 people, and as small as Fort Dodge, with 25,000 residents, are to be able to reap benefits.
Coralville has conducted 109 site assessments and seven cleanups, spending $1.9 million that the EPA has supplied with 10 grants since 1999. Coralville’s brownfield area, the Iowa River Landing District that is being developed along Interstate 80 between the Iowa River and the city’s First Avenue, is the most successful brownfield site in the state — some say even in the region — in terms of obtaining and using funds to revitalize a run-down area.
Development professionals IowaWatch interviewed pin Coralville’s success to the city having a brownfield coordinator who serves as a go-between with an environmental company and city engineers.
“I always joke when we’re hiring a new coordinator around grant writing time, that there’s no pressure on you, but everyone before you has gotten the grant,” City Engineer Dan Holderness said.
Cities with large grants got a head start when large environmental consulting firms like Terracon and HR Green approached their city councils about brownfield grants, and then offered their services.
Working with HR Green, Waterloo is close to Coralville in terms of impact, collecting $1.85 million in EPA money since 2000 to redevelop its downtown business district. The city has used that money for ground assessment and cleanup and to leverage grants from other funding agencies.
HR Green first suggested to Coralville that it pursue federal brownfield dollars in 1999. The 120-acre area designated as a brownfield had been home to a large truck stop, several warehouses, a scrap yard, repair shops and a strip bar.
At one time Coralville worked with Des Moines philanthropist Ted Townsend on locating Townsend’s dream project, an indoor artificial rain forest, at the site. But that broke down after the nonprofit organization heading the rain forest effort, first called Iowa Child and eventually Earthpark, failed to deliver.
Coralville moved to Plan B: an urban mix of commercial and retail buildings, hotels, a medical clinic operated by the University of Iowa, townhouses, a theater, an arena and a transportation facility, costing an estimated $30 million to $40 million over several years.
Even with only a handful of Iowa cities showing interest in seeking funds, Pins said the nearly $600,000 the EPA gives Iowa’s DNR annually hardly scratches the surface of the need he sees in the state. That leaves federal EPA grants as the state’s main source of funding for brownfield cleanup.
The national allotment this federal fiscal year was cut by $6.7 million, to $68 million.
“This particular grant just so happens to be incredibly competitive because there are so many brownfields and only $68 million for the whole country. That’s not enough money,” said Jennifer Fencl, environmental services director for the East Central Iowa Council of Governments.
IowaWatch.org is a non-profit, online news website operated by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, which is dedicated to collaborating with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative work. Mackenzie Elmer reported and wrote this story during spring and summer 2012 while with IowaWatch. She is a reporter for the Burlington Hawk Eye.