Funding Awarded for Investigation of Environmental Contamination
In the fall of 2021, several projects unfolded at the ECI Regional Planning District (ECI). Among them was a significant collaboration and joint objective to restore historically overlooked and blighted areas in Muncie and Delaware County. The ECI Regional Planning applied for and received a $500,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to assess brownfield sites in Delaware County- targeting three prominent residential areas. In addition to all of Delaware County, the grant specifically targets the Whitely, McKinley, and Industry neighborhoods. As of the beginning of 2023, the joint ECI-EPA Brownfields Program is underway initiating brownfield assessments.
The EPA grant was part of a $9.4 million funding initiative to assess or clean up potentially contaminated brownfield sites. A collaborative effort of ECI staff along with city and county officials came together for purposes of securing the federal grant. The efforts prompted the formation of an Environmental Justice (EJ) brownfield committee- comprising of representatives from the Industry, Whitely and McKinley neighborhoods along with a representative from the community development and Muncie Mayor’s offices. The strategic partnership draws upon the historical knowledge and longstanding presence of its members living in the community. The committee has identified over one hundred potential sites in possible need of assessment. To date, nearly twenty sites have been assessed or are in process. Work is furthermore underway in the neighborhoods to conduct research, make personal contacts, and initiate face-to-face conversations to ensure transparency about the program.
Brownfields are real properties that face challenges in expansion, redevelopment, or reuse due to the actual or potential presence of hazardous substances. This includes pollutants like petroleum products, asbestos, lead paint, mold, chemicals, controlled substances, hazardous materials, and environmental contaminants. The classification of a site as a brownfield involves conducting an environmental assessment to evaluate the extent of contamination, whether real or perceived, on the property.
The committee which is made up of neighborhood residents and activists Ken Hudson, WaTasha Barnes Griffin, Kat Carey, Deputy Mayor Richard Ivy, and Muncie Community Development Director Gretchen Cheesman. When talking to Barnes Griffin about what it’s been like working on these projects and the
rest of the committee, she shared, “The diversity of the group, the vast array of knowledge and expertise that we all bring. When project manager Brad Bookout from ECI first came to us and said “let’s do this” we were so excited. When we were then awarded money- we knew it was going to be a real thing. We now want people to be connected in this and know they have a voice.”
Revitalizing brownfields offers numerous advantages. Despite their prime locations, many remain undeveloped due to concerns or uncertainty about environmental contamination, liability issues, and cleanup costs. Businesses often opt for developing rural lands or greenfield sites on the outskirts of communities, contributing to the perception that brownfields are unusable “throw away” properties. However, repurposing brownfields proves to be a highly effective strategy for fostering economic growth and delivering various benefits to a community. The redevelopment of brownfields significantly reduces impervious surface expansion by 73-80%. On average, redeveloping 1 acre of brownfield eliminates the need for constructing 1.3 to 4.6 acres of new impervious surface. The regeneration of brownfield land also positively affects soil, vegetation, surface waters, such as culverts, sustainable urban drainage systems, ditches, and groundwater. Brownfields, categorized as abandoned, underutilized, or contaminated properties, can undergo transformation into productive projects through redevelopment. This not only addresses environmental concerns but also contributes to tax revenue and enhances the social fabric of communities.
There are three steps to the whole process of the assessments, phase 1, phase 2, and the cleanup plan. During Phase I, a non-intrusive assessment is conducted by an environmental engineer, with the owner’s permission. The engineer explores the property, gathering pertinent information about the site and its surroundings through on-site visits and building inspections. Additionally, comprehensive data is compiled from various sources, including current and past owners, detailing the site’s history and any alterations in its use. The assessment also identifies potential contamination and hazards based on the site visit, historical data, and subsequent research, setting the groundwork for the subsequent Phase II. In Phase II, with the owner’s agreement, direct site intrusion occurs, allowing for activities like collecting and analyzing soil or building material samples. This phase may involve deep soil borings and investigations of surrounding properties. Owners must consent to this more intensive assessment. The primary focus of Phase II is determining the type, extent, and degree of contamination. The environmental engineer then develops reuse options compatible with the contaminants on site and proposes cleanup plans to minimize hazards. The goal is not necessarily complete contamination removal but ensuring that, for a specific
use, the cleanup approach avoids environmental or health issues. During Phase II, it is advantageous to review potential reuse options and identify a developer. Community outreach and involvement efforts, involving property owners, neighborhood associations, developers, financial institutions, and community organizations, should be coordinated with both Phase I and Phase II assessments.
To date no setbacks have been encountered; the committee is progressing smoothly after a full year of work. The grant award is for three years and EPA expects funds to be disbursed on projects during that time. The committee’s grant consultant Soil and Material Engineer’s (SME) reports that compared to other EPA grant awards in the midwest- the committee is recommending, approving and proceeding through assessments at a much faster pace than many of their peers. There’s potential for further brownfield grant monies to be awarded- depending on successes and after all funds have been expended. Having utilized upwards of 35% of the funds to date the committee is committed to ensuring a portion goes for the targeted neighborhoods. “The progress is substantial and we’re optimistic about the positive economic impact on the communities that’s been brought forth by the EJ committee” said Bill Walters- Director of the ECI Regional Planning District.”
“The community’s active participation is crucial, especially for prospective property buyers seeking to understand the process of having properties assessed prior to acquiring them.” said committee member and Deputy Mayor Richard Ivy. Acquisition of commercial or industrial property without having a Phase I assessment completed leaves the buyer financially liable for any known or unknown contamination at the site. Cleanup cost can be in the hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars depending on what substances are found in soil and groundwater. As the committee proceeds, the process is thoroughly documented by both ECI and the consultant, covering project workings and financial aspects. Grant reporting is provided to EPA on a regular basis.
Continuing the ongoing search for sites that qualify for use of grant funds includes former gas stations, dry-cleaners, auto repair shops, landfills and any industrial or commercial properties that have cause for concern. The grant aims to assist individuals and business owners in the acquisition of sites, facility expansions, housing and amenity development, and most importantly enhancing community’s environmental safety and public health. Addressing historical environmental site damage particularly in low-income areas through revitalizing dilapidated or abandoned properties and returning them to the tax rolls is a key to calling the project successful. The community is urged to
understand that the grant is intended to provide assistance for properties with any suspected environmental problems either real or perceived. Funding is available through the grant and expert connections through the committees consultant has the potential to bring additional funding opportunities to projects- if needed. Input from the community is sought, extending beyond Phases I and II assessments. The goal is to rejuvenate neighborhoods and promote development with community involvement and input.
Several sites have undergone various phases in the brownfield redevelopment process. As of November 30th, twelve sites are currently in progress, and three more cities are scheduled for future phases. Completed projects include the former Vogue Cleaner (1401 West 8th St.), which has completed both Phase I and Phase II, and the former Muncie Power Products building (342 N. Pershing & 400 N. Hackley St.), which concluded Phase I on February 15th. Projects currently in progress include a site to be acquired by Habitat for Humanity in the (1400 Block S. Hoyt Ave) and the former Orr’s Auto site (1619 E Willard), both are undergoing Phase I assessments. ECI Board President James King commented- “I’m proud of the efforts of the team to address areas that have historically been overlooked for redevelopment. Establishing an environmental baseline for sites will enable developers to have a clearer picture if these sites are contaminated and hopefully pave the way for future development.”
For more information on the sites, go to Projects – ECI Regional Planning District (ECIRPD).