Tuesday, November 28, 2000

Battle begins over funds to clean pollution

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Ohio officials in charge of a new environmental cleanup fund may land in a political hot seat next year when local governments and businesses start fighting over the money.

        Voters created this situation Nov. 7 when they passed Issue 1. The statewide ballot initiative will set aside $200 million to help preserve farms, waterways and parks in Ohio, and another $200 million to clean up abandoned polluted prop erties in cities, known as brownfields.

  The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency lists more than 1,600 places where hazardous chemicals have been found or are suspected to be leaking into the ground, water or air. Here is a look at the number of Cincinnati-area sites listed in the state's database:
  • Hamilton County: 133.
  • Butler County: 31.
  • Warren County: 11.
  • Clermont County: 9.
        The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency lists more than 1,600 polluted or potentially polluted properties, 184 of them in Southwest Ohio.

        As lawmakers and state agency leaders prepare to divvy up the funds, Cincinnati-area interests hope to be first in a long line of groups with their hands out.

        “If you're not ready, if you're sitting on the sidelines, you may miss out on these dollars,” said Randy Welker, director of the Port of Greater Cincinnati De velopment Authority. The group is charged with redeveloping brownfields in the city and in Hamilton County.

        Mr. Welker said Issue 1 funds could help raise up to $7 million needed to purchase and clean 9 acres in Sharonville that were once used by an electroplating company, Green Industries Inc.

        Also concerned is Melissa Johnson, brownfields program manager for the city of Hamilton. She hopes to get some Issue 1 funds to help demolish an abandoned appliance factory in the eastern half of the city.

        “I'm very happy this money is available,” she said. “But $200 million is a drop in the bucket.”

        An outline of Issue 1 spending priorities, obtained from the Ohio EPA, shows the agency would spend $25 million to help clean up sites deemed public health risks.

        The lion's share of cleanup funds, $175 million, would be offered through grants and loans from the Ohio Department of Development. John Magill, an assistant director of urban development, said the agency will fund projects that will bring new jobs and profits to vacant inner-city properties.

        The Department of Natural Resources would get $100 million to help establish and preserve greenways, and $50 million to help clean up streams. The agency would spend another $25 million to create bike trails and recreation paths.

        The Ohio Department of Agri culture would get the remaining $25 million to preserve farmland. A pilot project would give grants to farmers who promise not to sell their land to urban developers.

        The big question now is, will lawmakers approve this plan next year? A handful of interest groups may push for changes.

        Groups representing commercial developers and home builders will likely oppose any program that would take rural land out of development.

        Some environmental groups worry the millions in brownfields money will become a slush fund for business owners who can pay for cleanups out of their own pockets. They may push to ensure the money goes only to help clean up properties that have no identifiable owners.

        “We'll see what role we play,” said Jane Forrest Redfern, environmental projects director at Ohio Citizen Action.

        All this means extra work for lawmakers who must pass a bill next year giving the state agencies authority to spend the money.

        “This won't be decided for some time,” said Rep. Gary Cates, R-West Chester. “The devil is always in the details.”


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