Brownfield bill funnels millions into polluted properties but slights environmental justice needs
“Legislating inequity, economically, is wrong,” said Rep. Justin J. Pearson, photographed on March 6, 2023, in Memphis, Tenn. (Photo By Karen Pulfer Focht)
Tennessee legislative committees are moving forward a bill that would give money to communities that want to clean up abandoned and polluted properties, but not all counties will have the same opportunity to obtain funding from the emerging Brownfield Redevelopment Area Fund and Grant Program.
Across the state, factories, gas stations, dry cleaners and other businesses left behind hundreds of brownfields, a term the Environmental Protection Agency uses to define land contaminated with hazardous chemicals that can make people sick. While TDEC has cleaned up over 1,700 brownfields for reuse since the mid-90s, at least 175 properties still remain.
Elected and appointed officials supporting the bill, which is part of Gov. Bill Lee’s 2023 – 2024 fiscal agenda, say it will conserve greenspace as Tennessee’s economy and population grows. Its funding will fast-track redevelopment of brownfield sites, especially for land that TDEC finds doesn’t have harmful material.
Environmental remediation needs to be directed at the places within the state of Tennessee that have historical pollution and continue to face the overwhelming burden of environmental pollution in our communities, which are urban areas.
– Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis
“There’s a process to go through to determine whether [a site] has a perception or real contamination,” said the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s Division of Remediation Director Steve Sanders. “It would be extremely unusual to see it reused as agricultural land. More often, the reuse is multifamily, residential, commercial, industrial or recreational. Every property has its own set of circumstances, and its own solutions. But what we try to do is tied to the intended reuse, and then determine the steps that are necessary to make it safe for that reuse.”
If passed, the state will create an annual $5 million budget for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) and award funding to “eligible entities,” according to the fiscal note for Senate Bill 271 and its companion House Bill 319. While all 95 counties are eligible for up to $500,000, only rural counties can receive up to $1 million — the highest amount a project can receive each year.
The bill follows Tennessee’s job tax credit enhancement framework, which breaks counties into four tiers. The lower the per capita income is for a county, the lower it ranks in the tier system; the state offers more tax credits to companies in such lower tiered counties.
By using this framework in the Brownfield Redevelopment Area Fund and Grant Program, large metropolitan areas where many of the brownfields lay — like in Memphis, Nashville, and Chattanooga — will be limited to the funding they receive because their counties rank higher in the tiered system.
Rep. Justin J. Pearson, D-Memphis, whose south Memphis district is among the most polluted in the state, questions why this bill uses the job tax credit enhancement framework for its funding model.
“Environmental remediation needs to be directed at the places within the state of Tennessee that have historical pollution and continue to face the overwhelming burden of environmental pollution in our communities, which are urban areas,” said Pearson. “We need our rural communities to be getting funding as well as remedies to their problem, but legislating inequity, economically, is wrong.”
The Brownfield Redevelopment Area Fund doesn’t have environmental justice indicators. TDEC told the Lookout that such indicators — such as communities of color — could come later in a scorecard for when they start awarding grants, but the department continuously pointed to economic inequality in rural counties who need financial support for redevelopment.
Advocates with the Tennessee Conservation Voters endorse the bill, because they believe the program will remediate land with health hazards and provide jobs once properties are redeveloped. The program will include an outreach component that would help communities and businesses understand how to identify brownfield sites and apply for funding, according to TDEC.
In the Energy, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Charlane Oliver, D-Nashville, asked about a plan for contaminated waste and where it would go once removed from a brownfield. Sanders told her that solutions will be a case-by-case basis depending on the property and chemicals found in the soil. Some pollutants can be managed at the property with techniques that accelerate natural degradation, while other pollutants may need to be relocated to places like a landfill.
Lobbyists and policy analysts that the Lookout interviewed expect the bill to pass in the Tennessee General Assembly in the coming weeks.
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