By Steve Dwyer
The impartial judges who selected a University of Connecticut brownfield project worthy of scholarship money back in the winter are seeing their selection become double-reinforced.
A group of four UCONN students conducted field work in the town of Stafford, Conn.—carrying out primarily phase investigations 1,2 and 3, and for their efforts secured $2,000 from BCONE as part of the Charlie Bartsch Brownfield Scholarship.
In September, the focus was back on the community of Stafford when U.S. EPA selected the community for a Brownfields Assessment Grant. The target area for the grant is downtown and northeast areas of Stafford—amounting to $221,000 for hazardous substances and $79,000 for petroleum.
Community-wide hazardous substances grant funds are expected to be used to conduct three Phase I and four Phase II environmental site assessments and prepare one cleanup plan. Community-wide petroleum grant funds will be used to conduct one Phase I and one Phase II environmental site assessment and to prepare one cleanup plan. Grant funds also will be used to prepare a reuse plan or market analysis for two sites and conduct community outreach activities.
BCONE Board member Mark Lewis, Brownfields Coordinator, Connecticut Dept. of Energy & Environmental Protection, Office of Constituent Affairs and Land Management, was one of three judges that picked the UCONN team that worked in Stafford.
“The students presented the results of their research very convincingly, and also delivered a great verbal presentation. The combination made it clear to the three judges that Stafford’s project was the winner among several very deserving candidates,” says Lewis. “And it turned out that the EPA agreed with us, in the context of awarding the town the grant money.”
Lewis knows the narrative of Stafford. He says that the town that has been known for several mill properties fell on difficult times when mills closed. But a rebirth ensued in 2014 and now a grant from EPA has been bestowed to allow it to continue its ambitious road to prosperity.
“Years ago, the town entered into our (state of Conn.) abandoned brownfield program, but in 2014 an angel investor acquired one of the textile mills that had been shuttered and put it back online—in turn putting a lot of people back to work and helping infuse the town several ways, including economically,” says Lewis, about a mill that sees its production used by U.S. military operations.
Starting with the UCONN students performing the upfront work, the work now set to commence thanks to the EPA grant will help identify the best, most cost-effective way to clean up other abandoned former brownfields. “This lays the groundwork on creating a roadmap on what steps need to be taken for the cleanup and what steps are needed to put sites back into productive use,” says Lewis. “This grant also could lay the groundwork for further state, local and federal financing to the town. The grant Stafford received essentially take towns that are ‘stuck’ and makes them ‘unstuck.’”
Lewis adds that Stafford is “a fairly typical mill town in north central Connecticut. I would say what we’re really trying to do is use the same Yankee ingenuity that helped Connecticut become a leader in the industrial revolution to being a leader in cleaning up abandoned sites.”
Students Paved The Way
You could say that the four UCONN students—Connor Oakes, Chris Falk, Matthew McKenna and Caressa Wakeman—laid the groundwork for the EPA grant being provided to Stafford. No doubt that the scholarship shone a light on the community—and those at EPA and beyond took notice.
The UCONN foursome, who were each awarded $500 to go towards their educations, visited Stafford five times during the fall 2018 semester, conducted phone work and captured many details about the community and the current state of brownfields by getting documents from town hall. After conducting Phase investigations 1,2 and 3, they prepared the assessment grant and gave a 15-minutes presentation in class about their efforts.
The team identified five brownfield sites in Stafford, a town of about 12,000 residents. One was an old school with incidence of asbestos and lead paint, while two were textile mills. They were also in close proximity to waterways.
The students were studying in UCONN’s CT Brownfields Initiative, Dept. of Civil & Environmental Engineering, under the direction of Dr. Nefeli Bompoti, Ph.D., assistant research professor, and Marisa Chrysochoou, Ph.D., director, Connecticut Brownfields Initiative, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
In addition to Lewis, the other two judges were Don Friday, project manager at the CT Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD), and Sarah Trombetta, senior project manager at TRC Companies.
All total, 151 grant were awards amounting to $64.6 million in EPA Brownfields funding through the Multipurpose, Assessment, and Cleanup (MAC) Grant Programs. These funds will aid under-served and economically disadvantaged communities in Opportunity Zones and other parts of the country in assessing and cleaning up abandoned industrial and commercial properties. Forty-percent of the communities selected for funding will receive assistance for the first time.
Lewis says that preparing grants to have a chance for the capital is a challenge. “In many small towns—in Connecticut and elsewhere—municipal staffs are stretched very thin, and lack the proper resources to prepare grants to the letter of completion,” he says. “These EPA grants for brownfields are also extremely competitive. Basically, there are a lot of dedicated people but only so many hours in the day (to attend to grant writing preparation).”
You could say that the UCONN students helped the town out on the front-end work for the grant with the submission of their report, which no doubt was rich with content ultimately used in the grant proposal.
Lewis says that the UCONN students not only were pleased about receiving scholarship money and receiving real-world experience, but “they were able to see that their efforts actually made a difference for a local community, as witnessed by the EPA grant in September.”