From abandoned coal mines to shuttered factories, the Brownfields Assistance Center at West Virginia University has helped communities resurrect once lifeless properties since 2006.
With a boost from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the amount of $1 million, the Center will continue its mission to empower communities to transform brownfields -- property hindered from redevelopment or reuse due to the presence or perceived presence of a hazardous substance or contaminant.
WVU was one of just six organizations to receive funding from the EPA's Technical Assistance to Brownfields Program to provide expertise to neighborhoods in the Mid-Atlantic (West Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington, D.C.).
"This will enable us to continue educating communities on brownfields redevelopment, including guiding stakeholders on the public health, environmental and economic issues associated with these properties," said Carrie Staton, interim director of the Brownfields Assistance Center at WVU. "This is our educational piece - we help communities access funding, understand the potential hazards and transform blighted brownfield sites into productive community assets."
One success story under the Center's guidance includes an old machine shop in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia that's now a thriving youth soccer field. The property had been donated to Morgan County, yet residents and officials realized the soil was contaminated with petroleum and even pieces of machinery, Staton said.
"The first time I went there, it was a pile of dirt," she said. "We worked with the community to engage public officials and other stakeholder groups and they applied for an EPA grant, which funded the cleanup of that site. Now they've got an impressive athletic complex with soccer fields and a baseball field across the road. It's a huge community asset."
Since its creation, the Center has trained hundreds of West Virginia community leaders on the complexities of brownfield redevelopment and helped to raise close to $13 million in EPA funding for community brownfields projects, as well as funding from other federal, state and philanthropic organizations.
"The Brownfield Assistance Center was created to help communities develop successful redevelopment projects and recover economic opportunity, jobs and local revenue that had been lost when the previous industries moved out," said Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute at WVU and one of the founders of the BAC. The Center is a program of the West Virginia Water Research Institute at the WVU Energy Institute.
Staton explained that several brownfield sites in West Virginia tend to be abandoned mines or glass, pottery and steel factories. Redevelopment of those properties must be handled with caution, she said.
"We see a lot of glass or pottery factories that may have arsenic and other chemicals embedded in the soil," Staton said. "Or there's a refuse pile where they dumped shards. A lot of this occurred in the early 20th century when people did not know as much about environmental contaminants as we do now."
In such instances, the Brownfield Assistance Center helps communities determine how to clean up the site, whether it be removing the soil entirely or covering the property with a cap such as a parking lot, Staton said.
Services are provided at no cost to participants, allowing for communities and organizations of any size and capacity level to access support.
"The EPA's TAB program has a long history of helping communities across the country better understand and redevelop brownfield sites," Staton said. "We are excited and honored to join this program and to continue providing critical assistance to encourage and support brownfield redevelopment."