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Brownfields industrial legacy

February 13, 2012
BY JAMES PIRKO - Community Columnist ( , Tribune Chronicle |

First the good news: Our Mahoning Valley is attracting more new industries than we have seen since the steel industry grew here more than a century ago. The Utica and Marcellus shale gas is transforming our tri-state region into a ''Golden Triangle'' of energy. Expect an assortment of good-paying industrial jobs, from manufacturing steel pipes and well drilling equipment, to plastics made from the abundant ethane coming from these shale wells.

Now the bad news: Too many of the prime locations, massive industrially-zoned parcels served by high-capacity utilities, railroads and heavy trucking roads, are too contaminated to use. These brownfields are the legacy of our old industries that closed more than three decades ago. When those mills were running, there was no environmental regulation as we know it today, and a toxic cocktail of hazardous chemicals were left behind in these properties' soils.

Before any business invests millions into new construction or renovating an older building, it needs to know that they will not get any unpleasant surprises, like an EPA order to stop work and spend millions cleaning up the mess left by a previous property owner. Industries will walk away from a brownfield site, unless they see a document from the EPA stating that no further action is required on the property.

EPA offers this when a property owner completes a series of steps to certify that the property poses no environmental threats.

Phase 1 assessments are documented records searches to disclose the previous use of a property, and identify any possible contaminants that may have been present. Land that has never been developed or used may be considered a ''greenfield'' and require no further action.

Phase 2 assessment is a physical examination of the property, with soil samples taken throughout the site. Lab tests determine what contaminants exist, and what would be needed to decontaminate the property. Depending upon its size and complexity, this can take months and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Phase 3 remediation is the actual cleanup of the property. Depending upon what the Phase 2 revealed, this could be as simple as a small area cleanup. In the worst cases, it can require the complete removal of all buildings and utility lines, followed by the removal of all soil down to the bedrock. These projects can take years, costing millions of dollars.

The cost of assessing and cleaning land for reuse is typically far more than the cost of buying undeveloped greenfield properties, leading to the destruction of productive cropland. This is why old industrial wastelands are found abandoned in our older industrial cities throughout the Mahoning Valley.

Ohio's voters took action a dozen years ago by approving the Clean Ohio bonds to pay for brownfield cleanup, as well as conservation of cropland and environmentally sensitive areas. The success of this program is shown by the voters' renewal of this ballot issue, and at the old industrial properties that have been cleaned and returned to productive use in Warren, Youngstown, and the Campbell-Struthers-Lowellville area of the Mahoning Valley. These bonds are paid from Ohio's liquor sales profits that are dedicated for economic development.

Governor Kasich recently sent shock waves through Ohio's older industrial cities with a proposal to divert these funds away from brownfield cleanup and into the new JobsOhio program. Our region responded, first with the Mahoning River Corridor Initiative and its cities voicing their concerns. The Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, consisting of city and county officials from Mahoning, Trumbull, and Ashtabula, took a stand with a General Policy Board resolution urging the continuation of brownfield cleanup through Clean Ohio. This resolution originated with Eastgate's Citizens Advisory Board.

Similar actions were taken by other regions of Ohio and they are making an impact. Apparently, our governor is reassessing the need for Clean Ohio, although there is not a final determination of what will be done with our old industrial wastelands.

Pirko is a Weathersfield resident. Email him at



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