Kansas Brownfields Programs Assess the Health of Contaminated Properties

DE SOTO, Kan. – The residents of this small, Kansas City bedroom community in western Johnson County had told Lana McPherson that they would love to have a Kansas River boat ramp.

The feedback came from a survey that McPherson, city clerk, had sent as part of the planning to celebrate the town’s 150th anniversary in October 2007.

The site of an old sand dredging operation seemed to make the most sense for locating a ramp, since it was part of a 50-acre, riverfront parcel owned by the city. There also were plans by the city to develop the entire parcel into a park, but the northeast portion of it included the old municipal dump.

With consultants provided through the “brownfields” program at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE), the community determined the previous uses of the land had not made it unsuitable for redevelopment.

“The KDHE people they literally – over the phone – if they could’ve reached out and held my hand to get me through this process, they would have done that,” McPherson said during a presentation last week at the De Soto City Hall.

McPherson spoke to about 20 people who came to a half-day information session put on by officials with the brownfields program. The audience included representatives from municipalities, nonprofits and the private sector.

Brownfields are properties where contamination, or the fear of contamination, has hampered redevelopment.

KDHE officials said the program focuses on potential public health issues at sites, such as buildings with asbestos or lead-based paint, and contributes to community health by clearing the way for walking trails and community gardens.

The department has about $200,000 a year to spend on site assessments, said Rick Bean, chief of the remedial section. The funding comes from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The program averages about 50 applications a year, said Maggie Weiser, brownfields coordinator. The program typically has enough funding to cover all the requests, she said.

Under the program, the state funds an initial assessment of a property to see if it might be contaminated.

That review includes an examination of property records and a visual check of the site.

If concerns arise during that process, the program also may fund sampling of groundwater and soil.

Of the 48 properties assessed by the program last year, Weiser said, 80 percent turned out to be OK for reuse without any remediation. The assessments generally take a month or two, she said.

“Once that stigma is gone,” Weiser said of the potential contamination, “you can redevelop that property and turn it into something great.”

Depending upon the circumstances, Bean said, an assessment can cost the department anywhere from $2,500 to nearly $30,000.

There also is a limited amount of money each year to help clean up a site, Bean said. Last year, that money was used to help create a community garden at Fifth Street and Haskell Avenue in Kansas City, Kan.

When possible, brownfields officials said, they might refer contaminated sites to other programs in the department. For instance, KDHE has funding in another program to help clean up leaking fuel storage tanks and dry cleaning operations.

Brownfields officials also attempt to connect property owners with other government agencies that can help redevelopment.

For instance, Daniel Fischer, an area specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Kansas, said communities have used rural development funding to meet healthcare needs.

Assistance through the Community Facilities program, he said, has allowed towns to build and refurbish hospitals and dental clinics.

Kansas State University also houses one of the few Technical Assistance to Brownfields programs that exist around the country.

The EPA funds it, too. The K-State office serves 21 states on a budget of about $400,000, said Wendy Griswold, project manager with the university’s Center for Hazardous Substance Research.

Staffers help communities with various aspects of redevelopment. The assistance includes help planning for new uses and reviewing proposals from consulting firms.

Among its resources is a software program that allows users to track and maintain a brownfield inventory.

Steve Mann attended last week’s session in his role as site developer for Cultivate Kansas City, an organization that works to establish urban agriculture sites.

One of his current projects is finding cultivation sites in Kansas City, Kan., for refugees from Somalia and Myanmar.

They have an offer of a couple lots for the Somalis, and Mann said it would help to have environmental assessment assistance from KDHE.

Abandoned lots, Mann said, are “kind of sick places in our communities that need to be dealt with.”

Health Forward Foundation
2300 Main Street, Suite 304
Kansas City MO 64108
(816) 241-7006