OKLAHOMA CITY — Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan dropped by Oklahoma Wednesday to affirm that a new era of federal funding for his agency is indeed “a really big deal.”
Less than 24 hours after President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, Regan addressed the 2022 Brownfields Conference, underway through Friday at the Oklahoma City Convention Center. More than 2,200 staff, municipal and tribal government and industry attendees from Puerto Rico to California found plenty to applaud.
While he emphasized the funding infusion is a really big deal “for the planet and for America,” he said the impact on the agency itself was not lost on him.
“Let me be selfish for a moment,” he said. “This legislation is a really big deal for EPA. In addition to the over $60 billion we received from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act will give EPA an additional $40 billion to carry out our work, and I’m thankful for the president’s leadership.”
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“It supports our work to reduce harmful pollution in people’s neighborhoods, to advance environmental justice with community-led solutions, and combat climate pollution while also saving families money on their energy bills,” he said.
EPA-related funding for Oklahoma through the Infrastructure Law includes an increase from $15 million to $25 million annually through the fiscal year 2024 for remediation efforts at the Tar Creek Super Fund Site, but brownfields were the focus of the conference, the EPA’s largest being held for the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Brownfields are assessment and financing programs that assist communities in the recovery and development of properties that are abandoned, idled, or underused due to contamination.
The Infrastructure Act infusion means a $10 million boost over the next five years for Oklahoma brownfields programs, which are primarily administered through divisions of the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality or the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. The city of Tulsa and Oklahoma City have brownfield divisions as well.
To date, $2 million in brownfields revolving loan funds established to restore the Diamond Building in Tulsa was Oklahoma’s largest, said Aron Samwel, DEQ Brownfields Program manager. That project used $1 million through the DEQ program and $1 million through the city of Tulsa brownfields program.
The building was vacant for 40 years due to asbestos issues. The asbestos abatement is recently completed, she said.
By comparison, the Infrastructure Act infusion coming into Oklahoma brownfields will put $3.9 million into new DEQ revolving loan fund programs, $2 million into assessment programs offered through the Corporation Commission, and another $3.9 million to Oklahoma City for its revolving loan fund program.
“That’s an additional $10 million in Brownfields funding, so it’s an exciting time right now,” Samwel said.
Oklahoma’s share is just a part of $1.5 billion committed to brownfields nationally over the next five years.
Oklahoma’s congressional delegation largely voted against both the Infrastructure and Inflation Recovery acts — reportedly objecting more to legislative details than program goals — but Regan literally stood on friendly ground in the capital city this week.
“This very convention site sits on a redeveloped brownfield site,” he said of the Oklahoma City Convention Center, as well as the adjacent Scissortail Park and nearby Skirvin Hotel, where many attendees stayed for the week.
Unlike the environmental compliance programs administered by the agency, brownfield efforts garner a positive reputation as they respond to communities that are reaching out to the agency in search of solutions.
The $2 million for Corporation Commission programs will be available in October, said Madeline Dillner, OCC Brownfields Project coordinator. The extra cash could serve to assess issues at dozens of old gas station sites and maybe a few large oil sites as well, she said.
“It could be more, or maybe less. We’ve had sites that are $15,000 or $18,000, and others that have some surprises and are more like $70,000 or $80,000,” she said.
Carlton Waterhouse, deputy assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management, said the term “brownfields” is not nearly as well known as “superfund” but it comes with a more popular background.
“The brownfields grant program is one of the best things we do at the agency, bar none,” he said. “It allows us to actually get funds to people on the ground in local communities.”