Tiptoe through the toxins becomes walk in the park: $600,000 in federal, state grants fund initiative to turn former industrial sites into recreation areas

June 4, 2007

Take a deep breath of that air, wafting with the fragrance of methylnaphthalene. And those violets-must be the lead and arsenic in the soil that give them such a lovely glow.

Nothing quite refreshes like a stroll through a hazardous waste site. Or, in the eyes of state planners, make that a former hazardous waste site.

The Indiana Brownfields Program will create the Indiana Brownfields Trails & Park Initiative. It will assess abandoned industrial and commercial properties with real or perceived contamination for suitability as recreational areas.

Contaminated property would have to be cleaned up first, of course. Even partially hydrogenated, cigarette-puffing Hoosiers have their limits.

The trails and parks initiative is springing to life thanks to $600,000 in federal and state grants. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last month awarded the state $400,000 for the assessment of petroleum and hazardous substances.

The state is pitching in another $200,000 in matching funds.

The money should be enough to pay for 42 site assessments statewide, said Meredith Gramelspacher, assistant director and general counsel of the Indiana Brownfields Program.

Where the state will look hasn't yet been determined, she added.

"I would venture to guess there is a reasonable possibility that some of the grant money will go for a project in Marion or surrounding counties."

A perennial favorite for walkers and bikers are abandoned rail corridors. Many towns have at least one overgrown rail bed from some bygone era. While many former rail switching yards may be contaminated, due to spilling of stored cargo, an ordinary stretch of rail bed may not be, said Matt Klein, board president of the Greenways Foundation, which advocates for a connected series of trails in central Indiana.

Klein, a former attorney at the Indiana Department of Environmental Management who now practices at Bose McKinney & Evans, said he's optimistic about the new brownfields program. He said redevelopment of abandoned rail corridors not only has recreation benefits but is embedded "in the larger picture of economic development."

An example of a site that might qualify under Brownfields Trails & Park Initiative is a former railroad roundhouse and engine maintenance facility at 1100 E. 25 th St., along the Monon corridor.

In the decades since being abandoned, the 12-acre site known as "the bulge" has been covered with trash from illegal dumping. Previous assessments by the Indiana Brownfields Program found levels of heavy metals and petroleum-related chemicals.

City parks officials plan to develop the bulge site as a junior golf facility.

Another area in the region that may be ripe for redevelopment as a recreational area is an abandoned rail corridor and industrial area west of Greenfield, said Richard Vonnegut, president of the Hoosier Rails to Trails Council. Various railroad corridors along U.S. 40 already are being redeveloped across the state for recreation.

Gramelspacher points to the B-Line Trail project in Bloomington as "a terrific example of the types of trails and parks projects we hope to fund." It involves a three-mile stretch of former CSX rail line acquired by the city, which intends to redevelop it as an urban linear park and multi-use greenway.

One condition that comes with redeveloping the sites is that the party responsible for contamination cannot benefit from public funds spent on the property.

"On paper they may look like great applicants/projects, but the devil is in the details," Gramelspacher said.

Because railroad companies still may be involved with many of these sites and would be legally responsible for the contamination, measures such as property transfers could allow the state to fund the work.

In 2001, the Indiana Brownfields Program awarded the city of Bloomington a $49,000 grant to assess the environmental condition of the rail bed that it acquired. Brownfields also awarded $300,000 to clean up contamination from coal ash and cinders, Gramelspacher added.

Last year, Gov. Mitch Daniels announced the state would double, to $20 million, its financial support of trails. The administration seeks a readily accessible statewide system of trails, bikeways and greenways by 2016.

The Indiana Brownfields Program is operated under the Indiana Finance Authority. It has provided $21.5 million in financial assistance in 72 counties. That includes nearly $3 million involving 90 sites in Marion County. The money typically is used for property assessment, petroleum remediation and low-interest loans.
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