City asks residents to identify brownfields

Columbus is taking initial steps toward rehabilitating unused properties throughout the city, tapping into a federal grant that can be used by municipalities to check for possible contamination.

The Environmental Protection Agency awarded the Columbus Community Development Department a $400,000 grant in October to inspect potential brownfield sites — properties that are either abandoned, unused or underutilized. The money covers inspections of properties that could possibly be contaminated by a hazardous substance or by petroleum.

The grant specifically targets two areas of the city where the presence of brownfields could be more likely — the State Street corridor and the downtown Columbus area, said Mary Ferdon, executive director of administration and community development.

Ferdon, representatives from the Columbus-Bartholomew County Planning Department and BCA Environmental Consultants — all working on the brownfields project — led the first of six public meetings Wednesday to give residents their first look at how the EPA grant could benefit the areas where they live.

About 15 people attended, some invited specifically because they live near a potential brownfield area.

The city has already created an initial inventory of about 55 or 60 possible brownfields that could be rehabilitated for future use, Ferdon said.

To receive a detailed brownfield inspection, a site must be either vacant or underutilized and cannot be owned by the city, said Melissa Begley, assistant director of the planning department.

However, determining if a property is actually underutilized is a subjective process, said Joel Markland, director of project development for BCA Environmental Consultants.

Sometimes his office might identify a property as a potential brownfield but later learn that the site only appears vacant from an outside perspective and is actually being adequately utilized, Markland said.

That’s why residents who attended Wednesday’s meeting were asked to review the potential brownfields the city has identified and prioritize them based on their own knowledge of how frequently those sites are used.

Once a site is identified as having a real potential to be a brownfield, the first step in the journey toward rehabilitation is a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment.

Phase I assessments are reviews of a property’s history, said Len Hinrichs, BCA’s project manager for the city’s EPA grant.

During Phase I, consultants will walk around the property, research its former owners and uses, take photos and identify any potential contamination red flags.

If there are problems on a property, the next step would be a Phase II assessment, which is more invasive, Hinrichs said.

Phase II can include drilling into the ground, taking soil samples, conducting asbestos tests or any other kind of test that can be used to identify contamination.

As Phase I and Phase II assessments are completed, some properties that were thought to be contaminated will actually come back clean. In those cases, the assessment of the properties will end.

However, if a brownfield is contaminated, the final part of the grant money can be used to create a clean-up plan. However, the funds cannot be used to actually rehabilitate the site, Hinrichs said.

The $400,000 grant will not be enough to fund an assessment of every potential brownfield in Columbus, which is why residents are being asked to prioritize the current inventory. Assessments through Phase II can cost up to $50,000, Markland said.

Barry Kastner, who lives on Columbus’ west side, said he would like to see the city do an assessment on some unused land along Second Street that he thinks could possibly be developed into city parks.

Those parks could become part of the larger effort to connect existing People Trails to the downtown area, Kastner said.

Going forward, Ferdon said the team working on the brownfield project will review the priority sites residents identified, work with property owners who are interested in beginning the assessment process and contact other owners who were not able to attend the first public meeting.

The grant is viable through Sept. 30, 2018.

What are brownfields

Brownfields are properties that are either vacant, unused or underutilized. Redevelopment of those properties could be hindered by the presence of pollution or petroleum contamination. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there could be more than 450,000 brownfields in the United States. In Columbus, the city’s brownfield grant will be used to focus on properties in the downtown area and along the State Street corridor.

What's next

The Columbus Community Development Department, Columbus – Bartholomew County Planning Department and BCA Environmental Consultants will continue to work with residents to identify priority brownfield sites and meet with residents who are interested in beginning the assessment process. Public meetings will be held about once every six months through the life of the grant, which ends Sept. 30, 2018.

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Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.