'We are really tying that back to this notion that environmental justice and equity will be center stage at EPA and this administration,' said EPA Administrator Michael Regan.
The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday announced more than $66 million in grants to 151 communities nationwide to assess and clean up contaminated or abandoned "brownfields'' — industrial and commercial properties that contain a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant. An estimated 450,000 brownfields, including abandoned industrial facilities, waste disposal sites, and former gas stations, plague cities, towns, and rural areas throughout the country.
"This is a significant opportunity for environmental justice communities and rural communities that for far too long have been living with blighted pieces of property. And now they can see on the horizon investment opportunities that will come to fruition," EPA Administrator Michael Regan said Tuesday in an interview.
About half the communities targeted for the latest EPA grants are receiving money from the program for the first time, and more than 85% are located in small communities, Regan said.
The grants "really tie into what we've been saying all along, which is environmental protection and economic prosperity are not mutually exclusive, but they go hand in hand,'' Regan said.
President Joe Biden "rightfully sees this as a significant opportunity, which is why the American Jobs Plan calls for an additional $5 billion investment in brownfields and Superfund sites,'' Regan said, referring to Biden's $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal.
The plan also calls for major investments in pipes and other infrastructure for drinking water, wastewater, and storm water.
"We are really tying that back to this notion that environmental justice and equity will be center stage at EPA and this administration,'' Regan said. "These resources will be going to the communities that need them the most.''
On other topics, Regan said the administration is working on a plan to replace a clean water rule imposed by the Trump administration, as well as a replacement for former President Barack Obama's plan to address carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants.
Regan said he wants to learn from both of the previous administrations before issuing his own rules on clean power and clean water. The water rule — sometimes referred to as "waters of the United States" or WOTUS — addresses federal jurisdiction over streams and wetlands and has been a point of contention for decades.
"I don't believe we have to choose between good water quality ... and overly burdening our small farmers,'' Regan said. "And so we're going to give some careful thought to how we move forward. And we want to do it in a way where we're not swinging like a pendulum back and forth every three to four years. We owe it to our stakeholders to provide them with certainty.''
Regan also said federal standards for automobile tailpipe emissions could be released as soon as this summer. The EPA and Transportation Department said last month they are moving to restore California's ability to set its own tailpipe pollution standards.
On another controversy, Regan said EPA has received "tremendous" interest from scientists and other experts seeking to serve on two advisory boards he gutted soon after talking office.
Regan has said his March "reset" of the Science Advisory Board and Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee was needed because Trump administration appointees were overly friendly to business. He pledged his actions would return EPA to its practice of relying on advice from a balanced group of experts.
"We have received a tremendous amount of interest from people all over the country who want to serve, who are highly qualified (with) diverse backgrounds, diverse cultural experiences,'' Regan said Tuesday. "And so we're going through that process.''
At least four experts who were fired from the advisory boards have reapplied for their positions, which include small stipends, EPA said.
On brownfields, targeted projects include $800,000 to Lincoln, Nebraska, to assess and clean 11 sites, including a former Nature's Variety cold storage facility, a former grain elevator, and International Harvester Building. Similar grants also will go to Rochester, New York; New Bedford, Massachusetts; and the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon.
Since its creation in 1995, EPA's Brownfields Program has provided nearly $1.76 billion in grants to assess and clean up contaminated properties and return them to productive reuse. The program has helped create more than 175,000 jobs in cleanup, construction, and redevelopment.
The grants announced Tuesday include $42.2 million for 107 grants to cover brownfield inventories, assessments, and community outreach; $15.5 million for 36 grants to help pay for cleanup at brownfield sites; and $8.8 million for 11 multi-purpose grants that will provide funding to conduct a range of eligible assessment and cleanup activities at one or more brownfield sites.