Virginia receives a big boost in federal funds for brownfields work

Money earmarked for site assessments and planning in Emporia, Newport News, Appalachia and Blackstone

By: - May 19, 2022 12:02 am

The Fulton Gas Works site in Richmond, pictured in 2016, is among what officials estimate are thousands of brownfield sites in Virginia. (Scott Elmquist/ Style Weekly)

Virginia has been awarded a record amount of federal dollars to lay the groundwork for the cleanup of contaminated or potentially contaminated sites known as brownfields in the cities of Emporia and Newport News and the towns of Appalachia and Blackstone. 

This month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality $2 million in brownfields grants, the most of its kind ever received by DEQ, with an additional $3.5 million going to regional and local governments and authorities.  

The $5.5 million in funding is the latest sign of increased investment in Virginia’s brownfields cleanup efforts, which may also see more infusions of cash as the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act prepares to funnel $1.5 billion toward such efforts over the next five years. 

Most recently, federal brownfields funding amounted to $200 million annually through 2023, said Chelsea Barnes, legislative director of environmental and economic development group Appalachian Voices. With the $1.5 billion earmark, “we will definitely see an increase in the funding levels Virginia receives,” she said. 

Those monies will be in addition to roughly $22 million Virginia is slated to receive for the rehabilitation of abandoned mine lands. Altogether, said Virginia Department of Energy Economic Development Manager Daniel Kestner, the state expects to “eliminate a record number of potential safety hazards and increase environmental benefits.”  

Brownfields are defined as properties whose “expansion, redevelopment, or reuse … may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant.” They can encompass everything from former industrial sites to railyards to dry cleaners to gas stations. 

Both the federal government and Virginia operate their own programs to restore and redevelop such sites.

Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality does not have a complete inventory of the state’s brownfields, but DEQ Brownfields Program Coordinator Vince Maiden said Virginia likely has thousands of such sites. 

“Because the definition under the statutes in Virginia and on the federal level is so broad … any site that has contamination or the potential for contamination can be considered a brownfield,” said DEQ Brownfields and Voluntary Remediation Program Manager Meade Anderson. “It’s hard to put a handle on numbers like that.”  

DEQ’s recent $2 million award from EPA, which is earmarked for brownfields assessment and planning, is a big increase from the $300,000 Virginia received from the federal agency for that purpose in both 2018 and 2021. 

Previous EPA funds went toward the promotion of brownfields as candidates for renewable energy projects in historically economically disadvantaged communities in Brunswick, Halifax and Mecklenburg counties, as well as the identification of brownfields within the Mount Rogers Planning District that could be repurposed. 

This year officials took a more statewide approach to applying for federal dollars, focusing on the town of Appalachia and three other communities that Maiden said “have been underserved with brownfields funding.” 

While the $2 million will not go directly toward cleanup, it will be used to identify and assess brownfields sites in Appalachia, Emporia, Newport News and Blackstone that could be rehabilitated, as well as other potential sites around the state. Grant funds can also be paired with existing economic development grants, noted Kestner. 

“Once you’ve got kind of a handle on what the environmental conditions are on the site, they can move on to the next step, which is redevelopment planning,” said Maiden. “We’re trying to figure out what the community wants to see happen at the site.” 

The possibility of placing renewables on such sites — an increasingly popular idea in Virginia as tensions rise over the use of land for large-scale solar installations intended to help the state decarbonize its power sector by midcentury — will also be considered. 

“There are some sites that lend themselves to being probably easier to reuse as renewables – some of the minelands, old landfills, some sites that may have excessive costs” or those with existing concrete pads or foundations, said Anderson. The question is, he added, “is there a good reuse, and what can be economically driven?” 

While interest in brownfields redevelopment has risen and fallen over the years, Maiden said the most recent uptick has been linked to the idea of repurposing brownfields for renewable projects. A provision in the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act that required the state’s two largest electric utilities to develop at least 200 megawatts of solar on previously developed project sites including brownfields triggered “a lot of calls and emails that are still coming in,” he said.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.