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House OKs brownfields renewal program

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Brownfields bill passed by House expands liability protection for state and local governments that acquire them, expands grants and allows more costs to be charged to grants

The House has approved a popular Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) program that helps communities revitalize underused and contaminated land. The bipartisan Brownfields Enhancement, Economic Redevelopment, and Reauthorization Act of 2017 (H.R. 3017) passed the House Nov. 30 by a vote of 409-8.  Although the program expired in 2006, its popularity prompted Congress to appropriate funds on an annual basis.

Originally passed in 2002 as part of the Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act (P.L. 107-118), EPA’s brownfields program provides technical assistance and grants for communities to reclaim previously owned industrial sites that have fallen into disuse.

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EPA's brownfields program

According to the EPA, there are more than 400,000 U.S. brownfields. Since the program’s inception, there have been more than 27,075 brownfields assessments and 69,275 brownfields acres cleaned up. This has sparked economic development opportunities and created over 129,240 jobs.

Key provisions in the Brownfields Enhancement, Economic Redevelopment, and Reauthorization Act of 2017 include:

Expands brownfields liability protection for state and local governments that acquire brownfields. Under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980, also known as “Superfund” or “CERCLA,” local governments have liability protection if they acquired the brownfields involuntarily through bankruptcy, tax delinquency or abandonment and did not cause or contribute to the contamination. However, under CERCLA, local governments must meet a separate set of standards if the brownfields are acquired voluntarily. H.R. 3017 expands the scope of CERCLA to provide liability protection to state and local governments for both voluntarily and involuntarily acquired brownfields.

Includes abandoned petroleum sites as brownfields if there is no viable responsible party, and if the EPA and the state determine that the entity assessing and remediating the site is not liable to clean up the site. According to EPA, close to half of brownfields are contaminated by leaking underground storage tanks such as those found at unused gasoline stations.

Broadens the universe of eligible brownfield grant entities to include 501(c)(3) organizations with a limited liability corporation, limited liability partnership and/or a qualified community development entity. While this provision would potentially broaden the types of entities that would qualify for funding, brownfields redevelopment projects are expensive and the grants only cover a small portion of the costs. This inclusion may allow more counties, especially rural ones, to partner with outside entities to redevelop brownfields.

Increases funding for brownfields cleanup grants from $200,000 to $500,000 per site and allows EPA to waive that limit up to $750,000 based on need.

Creates a multipurpose brownfield grant program that would allow eligible entitles to undertake multiple brownfield projects under the same grant. The bill allows EPA to issue multipurpose grants up to $1 million.

Permits additional administrative costs to be charged back to the grant. Grant recipients can use up to 5 percent of their brownfields grant for administrative costs.

Allows grants for renewable energy projects on brownfield sites. This includes facilities that generate wind, solar or geothermal energy or any energy efficiency improvement projects on brownfields.

Provides small community technical assistance grants of $20,000 to states for communities with populations under 10,000 and/or in disadvantaged areas where the annual median household income is less than two-thirds of the state-wide annual median income.

The bill has been sent to the Senate for consideration. A similar bill, the Brownfields Utilization, Investment and Local Development Act (S. 822) was passed by the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee in July. S. 822 is currently awaiting action on the floor of the Senate.

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