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City of Milwaukee Cleaning Up Its Act

by Belle Bergner

The target this time is brownfields, a term coined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to define “abandoned, idled, or under-utilized industrial and commercial facilities where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination.” The term brownfield was first used to distinguish developed land from unused suburban and rural land, referred to as “greenfield” sites. Brownfields are a concern in many cities like Milwaukee that underwent dramatic economic changes in the 1960s and ’70s, when businesses and industries went broke and left town. Some industries also left buildings and lots that were heavily contaminated. Lacking the remediation funds and state or federal environmental protection to enforce cleanup at the time, businesses left hazardous sites with no legal mechanism to clean them up for years to decades. In 1993, the EPA came up with the Brownfield Initiative Program to clean up contaminated sites while promoting economic development. Since 1993, EPA has provided more than $250 million in brownfields funding to states, tribes, and local governments for pilot projects, assessing the potential for additional projects, and voluntary cleanup programs. In fact, the EPA recently named Milwaukee as one of its “Brownfields Showcase Communities,” a class of cities that are models of brownfield redevelopment and interagency collaboration. Despite their grungy name, brownfields actually can be quite green. For example, Garden Park on the corner of Locust and Bremen is one. Some forward-thinking Riverwest community members have reclaimed this tannery waste-contaminated field into a prairie and weekly farmers’ market in the summer and fall months. Not all brownfield sites, however, will remain open spaces if the city has its way. In an effort to levy the property tax base for the city, Milwaukee Department of City Development (DCD) is targeting tax-delinquent brownfield sites that can most easily attract development. A brownfield of particular interest to the DCD is a Riverwest property with development potential at 3009 N. Humboldt Blvd. The former building at this site, which had housed a laundry and dry cleaning facility, was demolished in 1995 after a city inspection found 17 abandoned drums of contaminants and three unidentified storage tanks. According to the city’s brownfield grant proposal recently submitted to the EPA, “Significant TCE, PCE (dry-cleaning solvents), and RCRA [Resource Conservation and Recovery Act] metals (arsenic, cadmium, chromium, & lead) are present in the groundwater [beneath the site] exceeding the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources NR 140 Enforcement Standard.” NR 140 is the Wisconsin Natural Resources Statute that legally limits environmental contamination. The city also stated that on the 3009 N. Humboldt property “contaminated soil presents a direct contact threat to children and other pedestrians that play on the property and use it as a shortcut.” However, Benjamin Timm, Senior Environmental Project Coordinator for Milwaukee DCD, says that while the contamination is real, the language used in the grant reflects the EPA’s standards for determining “direct contact threat” which may not reflect the likelihood of someone actually becoming ill from the contamination. The property is currently owned by a mysterious “Humboldt Properties Inc.” of Chicago. Due to the owner’s tax delinquency for over a decade, the city is foreclosing on it. This will create a “clean title” and forgive the more than $250,000 in back taxes so that a new owner can build anew. Timm says that the city will send out a request for proposals to redevelop this property once the city has achieved ownership, sometime in the next few months. The City already has a proposal for purchasing the property to the south of 3009, the Post Teldyne building, which also includes proposed development of the 3009 property. The City of Milwaukee will help clean up the contamination through EPA brownfield reclamation funding once it is received, in addition to Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) funding. They’ll have to remove 876 tons of soil at a cost of $240,000 of which $200,000 will come from the EPA and $40,000 from matching city funds. Interested in learning more about brownfields? Here are some resources: (1) Road Map to Understanding Innovative Technology Options for Brownfields Investigation and Cleanup, Third Edition (EPA document: EPA 542-B-01-001). You can download a pdf of this document at: www.epa.gov/brownfields/liab.htm under the menu: “Clean up”, or read it online at www.clu-in.org/products/roadmap/. (2) Brownfields: A Comprehensive Guide to Redeveloping Contaminated Property, American Bar Association (ABA). This book is geared toward an audience of real estate and environmental attorneys, property owners and developers, environmental regulators and consultants, and state and local government leaders. The book provides an overview with background information about the issues and explanations of the federal and state laws governing brownfields.
by Belle Bergner