City hears status of brownfield cleanup project

Efforts to inventory and gather available information on former gas station sites in Pierce County, as well as assess and promote redevelopment of these sites — otherwise known as “brownfields” — are moving forward, according to John Sherman of the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.

Sherman provided status reports on two innovative programs — the Abandoned Commercial Tank Project (also known as Project ACT) and the Brownfield Assessment Project — during yesterday’s Tacoma City Council Environment and Public Works committee meeting. Both programs are designed to inventory sites potentially contaminated by former business uses, research available cleanup information, and provide resources for owners to assess and redevelop their properties.

“It’s an interesting marriage between economic development and public health,” said Sherman, who told the committee that he was working with the city’s economic development department to explore opportunities for safely cleaning up these sites for commercial redevelopment.

Much of that effort began in 2003, when the county received a Site Hazard Assessment Grant from the Washington State Department of Ecology, which allowed the health department to conduct field studies of more than 400 sites without agency records — specifically looking for evidences of former gas stations. According to Sherman, the results were alarming:

— The county is home to 752 former gas station sites; 454 are located in Tacoma;

— 279 sites had no record of site cleanup with the Department of Ecology, and very little was known about the environmental conditions of these sites;

— 226 sites were identified as potential brownfield sites;

“We know that three-fourths of underground storage tanks leak,” said Sherman. “It’s a matter of when — not if.”

Earlier this year, the health department received a $200,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to fund the Brownfields Assessment Project. The goal? Assess and promote redevelopment of former gas station sites where little or no environmental information exists.

According to Sherman, efforts are underway to pick 5-10 sites on which to conduct environmental assessments, based upon community interest, economic development potential, and benefits to the environment. The health department is also leading the effort to form a neighborhood advisory board for redevelopment, with representatives from communities affected by brownfield sites, business leaders, developers, lenders, and environment and economic development leaders. The advisory board will make policy recommendations for expediting assessment, cleanup, and redevelopment of the selected brownfield sites. Finally, the department plans to leverage partnerships and additional funding for site cleanup and redevelopment.

This work is expected to be completed by December 2006, according to Sherman.