Federal brownfield program in question, but Connecticut’s program remains strong
President Donald Trump has proposed sharp cuts to the federal agency that helps turn brownfields into productive properties, but Connecticut officials said that won’t keep the state from pressing forward with its brownfield programs.
Connecticut has about 1,000 brownfields: blighted, vacant or underutilized properties ripe for cleanup and redevelopment. Among them is New Milford’s Century Brass site, which has sat unused for decades, but is nearing the end of a long cleanup effort.
Most brownfield efforts are undertaken by private owners or municipalities. In Connecticut, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection oversees the regulatory components of any needed cleanup, while the state Department of Economic and Community Development handles funding and redevelopment.
At the federal level, the Environmental Protection Agency typically performs these functions. While the amount of money involved is not great — on average, Connecticut municipalities receive a combined $1 million to $1.5 million annually from the EPA — the potential loss of EPA experts who help with the state’s efforts could hurt.
“If there’s a reduction of staff at the federal level, then it will only make the process slower,” said Tim Sullivan, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development.
Connecticut’s brownfield program was established in 2006, but ramped up in 2011 when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy took office and allocated more funding for it, Sullivan said. Since 2012, the state has invested $191 million to investigate, remediate and revitalize more than 160 old or vacant factories, mills, warehouses and other contaminated sites and structures.
“The program is active in every part of the state,” Sullivan said.
Malloy has included $40 million in next year’s proposed budget to cover grants and loans for brownfields programs, the same level as in the current fiscal year. Last Monday, he announced $5 million in new grants for brownfield projects statewide.
Sullivan said he is optimistic the governor’s spending proposal for next year, which is financed through bond issues, will be approved by the Legislature, because brownfields programs have historically enjoyed bipartisan support and the backing of towns, cities and private entities.
In the most recent grant cycle, the state received 25 applications and funded 13. The state made eight or nine loans, which Sullivan expected would happen this year, too.
On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., introduced a bipartisan bill to restore the original $250 million to the federal program and broaden its availability to include nonprofits and community development agencies. Under the bill, applicants could receive up to $950,000 for brownfield projects, including $600,000 for cleanup — three times the current cleanup figure.
Esty said last month the outcry has been so strong against cutting the brownfields program — which few believe would survive Trump's proposed 31 percent cut to EPA funding — she’s optimistic Congress will revive it. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and legislators from both parties support it, she said.
“Connecticut has been very committed to brownfields — and creative,” Esty added. “More federal funding would assist our state, which has such a strong program.”
Esty said the EPA program, which was created in 2002, has been wildly successful, with a return on investment of $18 for every federal dollar spent. The demand is so high, she said, the EPA is generally able to fund only 30 percent of the grant requests.
“Brownfields, when cleaned up, translates into jobs in the communities,” Esty said. “It’s one of the most effective environmental and economic development investments we can make.”
Among these successes of the state program is the Two Roads Brewery in Stratford, where the state helped revitalize an old factory. The brewery now has about 100 employees and is expanding, Sullivan said.
Officials in the Danbury area hope for similar success.
Danbury is considering turning the old Mallory Hat factory into transitional housing. Last month, the City Council created an ad-hoc committee to review the proposal.
Asbestos, arsenic, mercury and lead were removed from some of the buildings, which were later demolished, using $2 million from the EPA. The soil still needs to be remediated.
Last Sunday, about 125 Redding residents came to the community center to hear a presentation about turning the old Gilbert & Bennett wire mill into a residential and commercial community for artists and young people.
The town foreclosed on the site in 2015 and is battling the owners in court over $3 million in taxes owed to the town and another $19 million owed to a taxing district. The debate returns to court this week for a status hearing.
New Milford is wrapping up the remediation of the Century Brass site, which has been vacant for about 30 years. Renovating the property and selling it so it can be returned to the town’s tax rolls has long been a priority of town officials.
In addition to state funds, more money is going into the projects from municipalities and private entities. For every dollar spent since the state program started, an average of $5.55 was added from non-state funding. During the current year, the non-state contribution is $11.27 for every state dollar spent.
“There’s broad agreement and broad recognition of the importance of finally doing something about these sites,” Sullivan said.
“Redeveloping brownfields is a win for the environment and for the economy,” Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Rob Klee said in a statement. “This investment transforms contaminated properties from an environmental and economic burden to an asset to local communities and the whole state.”
Staff writer Julia Perkins contributed to this report.