Since 1996, the state of Maine and its municipalities have received more than $ 94 million in brownfield redevelopment funds from the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up contaminated sites like those found in old mill towns.
Brownfield redevelopment transforms contaminated areas into commercial and residential spaces while removing Maine from its industrial past.
The former Pepperell Mill campus in Biddeford is a perfect example. The site was vacant on the Saco River and filled with hazardous substances for years before its redevelopment – backed by brownfield funding – began in 2008.
Today, the redeveloped site is home to more than 100 businesses as well as residential units and is a major economic engine for the region.
“There are literally hundreds of small buildings within the few million square feet that have created hundreds and hundreds of jobs,” said Paul Schumacher, executive director of the Southern Maine commission. “It’s important that what comes after this cleanup is how we try to measure some of that success. “
What is an industrial wasteland?
Brownfields are land already developed that can be contaminated and is currently not in use. Often the land was used for industrial or commercial purposes with known or suspected pollution.
New England’s legacy as a hub of the American Industrial Revolution means that Maine and other states in the region have a number of points contaminated with chemicals and hazardous materials from factories in manufacturing.
But cleaning them is expensive.
This is where the EPA money comes in. EPA brownfield redevelopment funds contribute to the costs of site hazard assessment and cleanup.
Maine has been very successful in securing these funds. While this varies from year to year, Deb Szaro, EPA’s interim region 1 director, estimates that Maine claims “about 20%” of the funds New England receives over the course of the year. a given year. Last year, the state received a total of $ 2.06 million, out of a total of $ 8.7 million for New England and $ 72.5 million nationally. The previous year, 2019, was a banner year for Maine, as state groups received $ 7.5 million out of a total of $ 14.2 million in total for New England and $ 73.9 million nationwide.
“Cities in Maine were left behind when the paper industry collapsed or when this company moved overseas,” said Jim Byrne, brownfield cleanup coordinator for Region 1 of the United States. ‘EPA, which covers New England. “I think people are really determined to get the stuff back [at former mill sites in Maine]. “
What does the cleaning of wasteland consist of?
The clean-up of brownfields takes place in two parts. The first is to assess what is actually there, not only in the soil and groundwater, but also in any remaining building materials that may contain lead paint, mold or asbestos.
Sometimes the process stops there – if no hazardous material is found at the site, clean-up can proceed without special precautions. Often, however, the next phase is to dispose of hazardous materials in a manner that is safe for the environment and human health, along with proper disposal, by professional contractors.
“We dig and haul a lot of contaminated soil, pump and treat a lot of contaminated groundwater, or scour the walls to remove asbestos,” Byrne said. “We see a lot of barriers or hoods engineered on a site to protect everyone who will be working on the site from these contaminants.”
Once the sites are cleaned up, they can be transformed into a number of community assets, from commercial and industrial spaces to parks and community spaces. In addition to removing toxic materials from the sites, the process creates jobs at all stages, from assessment and clean-up to jobs at the resulting revitalized site.
Plus, the initial investment helps the area overcome the bump of a site that no one wants to touch and spurs more investment as the cleanup process continues.
Other contaminated sites throughout Maine
Other old factory sites hope to achieve similar success in cleaning up and redeveloping old brownfield sites as they did in southern Maine.
Our Katahdhin, a non-profit organization working to promote community and economic development in the Katahdin region, purchased the old site of the East Millinocket paper mill and received funding from the EPA to redevelop it. . It was recently announced that the old factory will be turned into a data center for California-based data company Nautilus, which is expected to be up and running by the end of 2022.
“These evaluation grants are incredibly catalytic,” said Sean DeWitt, Chairman of the Board of Our Katahdin. “Once the data center chooses Millinocket as their home, [the assessment grants] give them the reassurance they need that they will be able to safely rely on their schedule. None of these redevelopment plans would be taken seriously without the brownfields of the EPA [grants]. “
DeWitt said the community is already seeing some of the benefits of the redevelopment, as new workers begin to move into town. He also hopes the redevelopment will create jobs for city workers, who often have to travel long distances to work.
“We also think the people who are out there now have a lot of great ideas and talent,” DeWitt said. “That’s what really drives us forward.
Brownfields are not limited to old factory sites, however. Schumacher said the southern Maine commission carried out a cleanup at a former gas station in Kennebunk, which is now a community space and ice rink. One site in Machias was a former dry cleaner adjacent to the historic Burnham Tavern Museum that had left behind toxic dry cleaning fluid.
Betsy Fitzgerald, chairman of the board of the Washington County Development Authority, said that with brownfield funding they were able to determine what hazardous substances were there and safely clean up the devastated site.
“The town of Machias, they weren’t going to do anything for this building because they didn’t have the resources to do it,” Fitzgerald said. “Bringing these properties back on the tax roll at a negotiable rate, as opposed to that, is wasteland is priceless. The ladies who act as docents [at the Burnham Tavern Museum] during the summer opening they saw more people coming to visit the building in part because they can actually see it and know it is there.
There are concerns about gentrification, as people who put up with a dilapidated site could suddenly face prices after redevelopment. Grant recipients in Maine have found ways to make sure this doesn’t happen.
“Some of the projects included a certain amount of affordable or market rate housing as well as affordable housing and some of the brownfield projects were completely affordable housing,” Schumacher said.
The future of brownfield redevelopment in Maine
While Maine has been successful in brownfield redevelopment so far, there are still many sites across the state that need to be cleaned up.
Because there are so many sites, Amy Landry, executive director of the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments, said organizations like hers need to prioritize their distribution where they will have the most impact, which leaves gaps in other areas.
“The impending threats are of course great, but the potential for redevelopment is the greatest,” Landry said. “We want this to translate into an economic impact, a social or community benefit, like housing or green space that a community needs, so we don’t just pick up little gas stations around the corner from a place. of no interest to the site and no project is planned. We just can’t do it all.
Schumacher said the challenge in Maine for brownfield redevelopment lies in many rural locations.
“You have to be more creative in what you do,” Schumacher said. “It’s in a rural area and then you end up with no water or sewerage, which makes the redevelopment really problematic. ”
For the continued success of the program in Maine, especially in the most difficult areas, DeWitt said partnerships will continue to be important and that more organizations and municipalities will need to continue to seek funding beyond those who have already received it.
Still, DeWitt believes brownfield redevelopment is the best way to bring Maine into a new economic era.
“Maine has a comparative advantage in a sustainable economy that is starting to emerge,” DeWitt said. “We have enormous natural assets. We just need to make sure we make this transition in the cleanest and most thoughtful way and I think brownfields [redevelopment] would be a good way to make this transition.