Brian Mathis was looking for a piece of property where he and his father might consolidate their businesses, an engineering firm and a truck parts supply company.
They found an 11-acre industrial site on South Dixie Highway in Georgia's Whitfield County that was the right price, but it was cheap for a reason.
"Nobody wants to touch some of these old places with a 10-foot-pole because they may have some kind of contamination on them," Mr. Mathis said.
The site they wanted was that of a former fleet tanker operation, and there was potential for latex and other contamination, he said.
"There was some risk involved," Mr. Mathis said. "It makes you nervous as a cat on a roof. You don't know what's there until you have it tested. But we did our homework."
After the Mathises spent about $200,000 to clean up and test the site, it has been given a clean bill of health by Georgia regulators.
Identification and cleanup of brownfields - locations contaminated at levels below the nation's "Superfund" ranking - is growing as industries go out of business and prospective new owners want guarantees that they won't be held responsible for major cleanups.
In North Georgia, there are three such sites in Whitfield County and one in Calhoun, Ga., according to the state Department of Natural Resources.
In Hamilton County, there are 16 brownfields listed by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, and some have familiar names: the Farmer's Market on East 11th Street, McCallie Homes, U.S. Pipe and Foundry, Charles A. Bell School.
Overall, Tennessee has about 220 brownfields on the books, according to TDEC spokeswoman Meg Lockhart. Cleanup is ongoing at 151 Tennessee sites, while work is complete at 69, she said.
From 2003 through 2009, Georgia approved more than 307 brownfield projects, totaling 3,462 acres now in voluntary cleanup, said Kent Pierce, an environmental engineer in charge of the state's Environment Protection Division's brownfields program. He said the owners doing the cleanup also are eligible for some tax breaks.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated the nation has more than 500,000 brownfield sites.
The EPA introduced the brownfields program in 1993 to keep the nation's increasing number of idled manufacturing sites viable on the real estate market. The reasoning behind the program was a simple matter of manufacturing job statistics:
In 2007, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the number of manufacturing jobs had fallen to 14 million, down from 20 million in 1979. Yet while the businesses were fading, the legacy of hundreds of thousands of abandoned or underutilized factories, marshaling yards, transport, waste management and other orphaned sites constantly was growing, according to a 2008 report by Rutgers University researchers.
Those wastelands of former job sites stranded communities and promoted sprawl and new infrastructure costs, the report says.
To combat the problem, the Clinton-Gore administration and the EPA in the early 1990s launched a series of policies and programs to clean up brownfields and return them to productive use.
Hamilton County in recent years has received federal money to help identify eligible sites to test and clean up. In 2009, Chattanooga received $200,000 to clean up the former Charles A. Bell Elementary School site at 3501 Central Ave. in Alton Park. Plans call for a new community recreation complex there.
The 10-acre site was an elementary school from 1960 to 1990, but because the school lies in the flood plain of Chattanooga Creek and is bordered by Southern Wood Piedmont, its soil is contaminated with the leftovers of coal tar and wood preservatives, including creosote. Both Chattanooga Creek and Southern Wood Piedmont are Superfund sites.
The vacant school also contains asbestos and other environmental hazards, according to state documents.
"Something like this doesn't need to be next to the Villages at Alton Park," said Dan Saieed, Hamilton County's director of development.
Officials say they expect to hire a consultant for cleanup at the school within the next three weeks.
For the school and other local brownfield sites, Chattanooga received $1.6 million in 2009 - the lion's share of the $2.4 million EPA awarded across the state last year. Some of that money included stimulus grants through EPA.
For years, many area industries used Chattanooga Creek - which has a 7.7-mile stretch through Alton Park - and vacant land as dumping sites. When businesses and factories closed, they left behind 150 acres, including 41 known or suspected hazardous waste sites, state officials have said.
Another well-known Chattanooga brownfield is the Farmer's Market, a 9.3-acre site on East 11th Street where Mayor Ron Littlefield had hopes for a homeless shelter and services center.
The city bought the site for $775,000 and since has spent at least $50,000 on cleanup. Now the state prohibits digging at the site. There also are stout building requirements for new construction there.
In Georgia, the Whitfield County site at 2501 Walnut Ave. appears destined to become a new location for a CVS pharmacy, according to state documents.
Georgia officials say millions of dollars have been invested in cleanups with minimal expense to taxpayers, because each brownfields program applicant pays a $3,000 application fee when they apply for state assistance.
"Probably for 99-plus percent of the properties we've dealt with, that covers the time and effort we have spent on the project," Mr. Pierce said. "This is one of the few programs in our agency that is driven by the fees we charge the people who come to us, so it's not a drain on the tax base."
While the soil contamination has been cleaned up on the Mathis' property, groundwater contamination is still there, but they won't be held liable for that.
"The rationale is, we cleaned up the source of groundwater pollution, so now the water contamination will take care of itself," Mr. Mathis said.
He and Georgia regulators say the payoff is a clean bill of health for the property and something of an insurance policy against future liability for Mr. Mathis should he re-sell the parcel.
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