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Abandoned Eyesores Get a Second Chance

Abandoned buildings often deteriorate into community eyesores and remain untouched health hazards for decades. However, a new grant awarded to Beaver and Lawrence Counties from the EPA will be used to get abandoned sites on the path towards being redeveloped.

Beaver County received $600,000 and Lawrence County, $400,000 in federal “brownfields” grant money, which will pay for inspections and health risk assessments on derelict properties.

Kristeen Gaffney, Chief of the Brownfields Program for the EPA’s Region Three Office, says brownfields can be shut down steel mills, closed dry cleaners, small-scale industrial sites, or even older residential buildings.

“It’s basically any property that is potentially contaminated,” said Gaffney. “The first step is finding out whether or not it is contaminated, so it’s a brownfield just if there is potentially perceived contamination. You look at an old building or an old factory and think ‘Hmm, I wonder if there’s anything in there?’”

The assessments look for heavy metals in the soil, asbestos, lead paint, pesticides, and chemical solvents and spillages, among other things. Some of the money awarded to Beaver County will focus on sites that had underground petroleum storage tanks, such as old gas stations and auto-repair shops.

Only 264 brownfields grants were awarded nationwide this year. Beaver County had to complete an application and proposal that outlined the county’s plans for the money. Beaver will use the grants to conduct up to 22 hazardous waste assessments and 10 petroleum contamination inspections.

Although the money will not be used for demolition or construction, the contamination assessments are a vital step towards reusing abandoned properties, according to Gaffney. Many buildings stand unused for years because it is cheaper for investors and developers to buy and build on untouched land than to pay for property inspections or purchase potentially hazardous sites.

“It’s typically what we see because of the liability laws,” said Gaffney. “People are hesitant to take on that risk of buying a site if they don’t know what kind of potential liability or contamination issues they are going to be buying.”

Likewise, property owners are often unwilling to pay for the inspections that would make their land marketable.

“People are hesitant to make an investment if there’s a lot of unknowns about a property, so this money helps to address the unknowns,” said Gaffney.

With an earlier grant, Beaver County identified brownfield sites and made plans for potential re-development. Now the county has the money to take the next steps in redeveloping these properties. The money will chiefly be used for assessments, but there are other potential uses.

“They can use the funds for planning for the site, community outreach, and engaging the community in how to plan for the reuse of the site,” explained Gaffney.

Some brownfields will be sold to private investors, but others might be turned into community parks or other public areas. According to Gaffney, the EPA’s goal in awarding brownfields grants is to prevent the waste and abandonment of developed land.

“It’s sort of the concept of sustainability,” said Gaffney. “We want to try to protect our green areas as much as possible, and reusing these contaminated sites is a way to protect farmland, parkland, virgin land. But in addition, you could return some of these sites to public use as well. Many of our brownfield sites are repurposed back in to community assets.”