Earlier this year, the City of Davenport made a last-ditch effort to get a grant from a federal environmental program whose future was uncertain. "We prepared the application in a bit of a rush," said Len Adams, an economic-development specialist for the city. Ward 1 Alderman Roxanna Moritz added that the city finished the application in 15 days, without public input.

The competitive program, started in 1995, was designed to be the first step in cleaning up and redeveloping old industrial properties called "brownfields." Adams said he had looked at the program but didn't think there was enough momentum for redevelopment to apply. Then, just a few weeks before the deadline, a presentation from a vendor grabbed the attention of the city council, and with their backing Adams quickly prepared an application.

Not surprisingly, Davenport wasn't among the 50 or so organizations that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chose for its Brownfields Assessment Demonstration Pilot grants. But then the program - and the City of Davenport - caught a lucky break.

The program was originally meant to last four years and help 300 communities. But the EPA asked for and received funding for the program beyond its expiration this year.

"We're getting a lot of interest from municipalities," said Shane Reed, brownfields project manager for Region 7 of the EPA, which includes Iowa.

The EPA will award 35 more grants next year, adding to the 362 communities that have already won grants, including the Iowa communities of Clinton, Coralville, Des Moines, and Sioux City. The Brownfields Assessment program's funding level this year, approximately $10 million, is about half of what it's been in years past.

So the City of Davenport is trying again, preparing a new application for a $250,000 grant that would fund assessments of as many as 25 properties in the riverfront area of western Davenport. Of the assessed properties, between 15 and 20 that might be contaminated will be investigated further, and then the city will make detailed preparations for cleaning up polluted locations.

The project area would be bound on the east by Marquette Street, on the west by Utah Avenue, on the north by Rockingham Road and River Drive, and on the south by the Mississippi River. The area includes Oscar Mayer Foods Corporation, Ralston Purina Company, and Nichols Homeshield, as well as the old city dump. The application deadline is January 12, with awards expected to be announced in April 2001.

After Davenport was not awarded a grant earlier this year, the EPA told the city that it would have had a better chance with public input and with permission from property owners to assess their properties. The first of those deficiencies was addressed November 29 at two community meetings, during which residents and business representatives discussed their visions for the west side of Davenport. And the city has "started negotiating to get access to at least one property," said Adams, who declined to name businesses he's contacted about possible assessments.

The city dump, on the eastern edge of the project area, is a good example of why the assessment program exists. When the dump was closed in 1972, environmental regulations weren't as stringent as they are today, and site was not sealed properly. The city has no idea whether the site needs to be cleaned up, or how much it would cost. "What's in the fill we don't know," Adams said.

The grants and their aims are modest. The $250,000 awards can only be used to determine whether property is contaminated and to what extent, not clean it up. The money is meant as a spark to redevelopment.

Many industrial properties aren't developed because of environmental problems real or perceived. "Perception [of contamination and cleanup costs] is what has prevented redevelopment," Adams said. "This is about dispelling the aura."

Linda Garczynski, director of outreach and special projects for the EPA, said that assessment gives owners or prospective owners some sense of what a cleanup might cost. Often, she said, businesses find that cleaning up a contaminated site is less expensive than they feared.

She also noted that in many cases, cleanup costs are relatively minor compared to a project's scope. For instance, she said, a company that wants to build a $100 million facility might be considering a brownfield site. After assessment, the business finds that "it was only going to cost $100,000 [to clean up]. ... Other than that, the property was ready to be developed very, very quickly."

After assessments are completed, communities have several options for paying for cleanups: private investment, state cleanup programs (including Iowa's Voluntary Cleanup Program), and federal Brownfields Cleanup Revolving Loan Fund Pilots. Garczynski said communities have been able to leverage $2.3 billion in private and state money for cleaning up contaminated sites, "and most of the money is private."

Iowa's Voluntary Cleanup Program has about $3 million available for cleanup in the current fiscal year. About a dozen properties have been cleaned up under the program, said Bob Dustrup, an environmental engineer with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. "We expect we're going to see increasing numbers" because of the EPA assessment program, he said.

In the past, he noted, owners wouldn't sell properties because they didn't want to go through an environmental assessment; they knew they'd be required to clean up contamination before a sale. But if the costs of assessment and cleanup can be reduced, brownfield locations are often attractive to buyers. He said that unlike undeveloped land, brownfields already have infrastructure.

The federal Brownfields Cleanup Revolving Loan program will be funded at approximately $30 million next year, with maximum loans of $500,000. Under that program, Adams said, the Bi-State Regional Commission would administer the city's award and give low- or no-interest loans to businesses to clean up property in the program area.

Economic development is the impetus behind the program, and a required part of the application is a redevelopment plan for the project area. Adams said the city's goal is to make sure that major businesses - Oscar Mayer, Ralston Purina, and Nichols - don't leave.

The discussions at the community meetings were less about contaminated property than citizens' priorities for west Davenport.

People who attended the meetings were more interested in recreational areas, green space, and infrastructure than pollution. Among ideas that attendees brainstormed and voted on, turning Credit Island into a marina and upgrading sewers were the most popular. (Creating more recreational opportunities in general was a common theme, as well.) People in attendance also favored using economic incentives to attract new businesses and encourage others to improve their facilities.

Other exchanges weren't so upbeat. One property owner commented that assessments could lead to EPA involvement and expensive mandatory cleanups. "We can do it the easy way ... hopefully with some assistance," Adams responded, "or we could do it under the gun."

People involved in brownfield programs acknowledge that there is reluctance among some property owners to agree to assessments. They fear that if contamination is found, the government will require them to clean it up out of their own pockets.

Adams said that the issue of forced cleanups is definitely a "touchy area."

The EPA's Garczynski said that an assessment identifies a responsibility but doesn't create it. A property owner who has polluted the land is "already liable" for cleanup costs, she said.

Reed said that the EPA understands that sometimes a current property owner didn't cause contamination, however. "Innocent landowners we really don't go after," he said. But, he said, if an assessment does turn up contamination and the owner refuses to clean it up, "we would address it if we had to."

Reed stressed, though, that the assessment program is meant to prevent involvement by the EPA. "This is intended to be a grass-roots thing," he said.

And not only does the program start the process of making brownfields suitable for development, he said, but it reduces the cost: "This is free assessment."

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