Opinion: Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s brownfield site cleanup plan a sound proposal, worthy of support

File photo/Mark Zaleski/The Associated Press / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State Address in the House Chamber on Feb. 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.
File photo/Mark Zaleski/The Associated Press / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State Address in the House Chamber on Feb. 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.

Just last month, Gov. Bill Lee outlined his legislative priorities in his State of the State address, priorities that would help Tennessean communities — especially rural ones — turn usable land into profitable properties.

In addition to modernizing our transportation infrastructure and funding four new state parks, Lee announced a strategic initiative to clean up all 175 known brownfields throughout Tennessee. The proposed $82 million would fund brownfield cleanup projects and expand upon existing grants for local governments to remove pollutants from their communities. According to the governor's budget, these funds will be allocated to clean non-National Priority List sites, and grants to localities will improve water quality, water conservation funding, and high hazard dam remediation planning funding.

According to the EPA, a brownfield is a property whose expansion or development may be complicated by the presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant. Cleaning up and reinvesting in these properties protects the environment, reduces blight, increases local tax bases, facilitates job growth and takes development pressures off greenspaces and prime real estate.

Many of the brownfields in Tennessee resulted from gas stations, dry cleaners, factories or other polluting operations. These sites are generally located in the industrial sections of towns or in remote, rural areas. Oftentimes, these facilities were abandoned decades ago, along with the companies that created the contamination. In the absence of a responsible party, these sites -- and the dirty secrets underneath them -- have become a threat to the surrounding environment and a financial liability to any developer who purchases the property.

Using government funds, these sites can be transformed into productive areas, providing opportunities for investment by members of the community.

Expenditures of taxpayer funds come with significant trade-offs, such as possible misuse of funds or ineffective programs, that must be discussed and analyzed. Lee's proposal, however, is a win-win-win for people, planet and profit.

Brownfield projects leverage $20.34 for every tax dollar spent, and have created more than 180,000 jobs nationwide, according to the EPA.

Rural Tennesseans will see increased investments in their communities through empowerment of local governments and development boards with the resources and financial incentives needed to investigate, clean up and redevelop contaminated properties. Many see this as a breath of fresh air to rural communities which are often overlooked by population-dense urban areas. These goals will be accomplished by expanding the Brownfield Franchise and Excise Tax Credit to include credits for the cost of remediation. Additionally, the Brownfield Tax Increment Financing law will be amended to remove geographic barriers and allow for projects such as utility connection, landscaping and the construction of onsite stormwater facilities to apply.

We owe it to the taxpaying citizens of Tennessee to provide the highest quality and most efficient governmental services. The Rural Brownfield Redevelopment Investment Act is a great example of how collective action can have upstream and downstream impacts on the environment, the economy and citizen stakeholders.

Everyone should be in favor of environmental policies aimed at clean air, clean water and clean soil. Gov. Lee's work on this issue should serve as an example for responsibly stewarding our environment.

Alan Reed is an American Conservation Coalition activist based in Chattanooga.

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