By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Local government and business leaders are one step closer to aquiring a federal grant that could encourage commercial and industrial development in Hill County.
Funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Brownfields program provides money to assess, clean and redevelop properties tainted by hazardous materials. On Wednesday, the Hill County Commission submitted a grant proposal to the EPA, which could be approved as early as June, said Annmarie Robinson, deputy director of Bear Paw Development Corp.
The grant application is the second part of a two-step process that communities must complete to qualify for the grant. Hill County submitted the first part of the application in December, and was approved in January to move forward with the second part.
The Hill County Commission, with the help of Bear Paw Development and Montana Tech of the University of Montana, has asked the EPA for $275,000 to evaluate potentially contaminated sites.
Properties contaminated by hazardous materials are often passed over by investors due to liability concerns, Robinson said. Assessing those sites and beginning the cleanup process will make them more attractive to potential investors, she said.
"Like everything else, this comes down to economic development," she said.
Some properties that are believed to be contaminated could actually test negative for hazardous materials, alleviating investors' concerns of assuming expensive cleanup costs, Robinson said.
The owners of sites that are found to be contaminated can apply for federal money to assist in the cleanup costs, she added.
The EPA defines a Brownfields site as "a real property, the expansion, redevelopment or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant."
Some possible Brownfields sites in Havre and the surrounding areas include gas stations, meat-packing plants, dry cleaners, auto salvage yards, landfills and dumps, oil production and recycling facilities, rail yards and paint shops.
If the EPA approves the grant, $150,000 will go to assess sites contaminated by petroleum products, and the remainder will be used for sites contaminated by other hazardous chemicals.
Montana Tech is assisting the county by providing information and technical services for the evaluation of the sites. The university offers two programs, Technical Outreach Services for Communities and Technical Assistance to Brownfields Communities, to help reclaim contaminated properties.
The mission of the two programs is "to bring educational and technical resources to communities affected by hazardous substance contamination," according to the university. Although education is the primary purpose of the programs, "personnel may also offer scientific opinions on specific issues," the university said.
Evaluating and redeveloping Brownfields sites in Havre will not be an easy task, and Hill County is still in the planning stage, Robinson said.
Real estate firms and banks are beginning to recognize the importance of contamination cleanup, and are showing strong support for the the county's bid for federal dollars, Robinson said.
"There is definitely an interest," she said. "But we are trying to get some other people and agencies on board at this point."
The assessment part of the Brownfields program consists of two phases, Robinson said.
The first is to identify the type, quantity and extent of the possible contamination. This will include reviewing records of the property, making a visual assessment, interviewing people familiar with the site, and finally making a report based on findings. The cost of a phase one assessment is about $2,500.
Phase two is the site investigation. This entails testing soil, water and air samples to determine the level of contamination. The cost of the investigations will vary, but generally run about $30,000, Robinson said.
After the assessment phase of the Brownfields Program is complete, communities can apply for additional money for the actual cleanup. Hill County tentatively hopes to reach that stage in about two years, Robinson said.
Robinson said she is "guardedly optimistic" that Hill County will be approved by the EPA this spring.