Since 1996, the state of Maine and its municipalities have received more than $94 million in brownfield redevelopment funds from the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up contaminated sites like those found in former mill towns.
Redevelopment of brownfield sites is transforming contaminated areas into business and residential space while also ushering Maine away from its industrial past.
The former Pepperell Mill campus in Biddeford is a perfect example. The site sat vacant on the Saco River and filled with hazardous substances for years before its redevelopment — bolstered by brownfields funding — began in 2008.
Today, the redeveloped site is home to more than 100 businesses as well as residential units and serves as a major economic driver for the area.
“There are literally hundreds of small businesses in the few million square feet that have resulted in hundreds and hundreds of jobs,” said Paul Schumacher, executive director of the Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission. “It’s important what comes after that clean up is how we try to measure some of that success.”
What is a brownfield?
Brownfields are previously developed land that may be contaminated and are not currently in use. Often, the land was used for industrial or commercial purposes with known or suspected pollution.
New England’s legacy as a hub for the American industrial revolution means that Maine and other states in the region have a number of spots that are contaminated with chemicals and hazardous materials from manufacturing plants.
But cleaning those up is expensive.
That’s where the money from the EPA comes in. The EPA’s brownfield redevelopment funds help with the costs of assessing hazards at sites and for cleaning them up.
Maine has been very successful at obtaining these funds. Though it varies from year to year, Deb Szaro, acting director for EPA Region 1, estimates that Maine claims “around 20 percent” of the funds New England receives in any given year. Last year, the state received a total of $2.06 million, out of a total of $8.7 million overall for New England and $72.5 million nationally. The year before, in 2019, was a banner year for Maine, as groups in the state received $7.5 million out of a total of $14.2 million overall for New England and $73.9 million nationally.
“Towns in Maine were left holding the bag when the paper industry collapsed or when this business went overseas,” said Jim Byrne, brownfields cleanup coordinator for the EPA Region 1, which covers New England. “I think people are really committed to getting business back [at former mill sites in Maine].”
What does brownfield cleanup entail?
Brownfield cleanup occurs in two parts. First is assessing what is actually there, not only in the soil and groundwater but also any remaining building materials which might contain lead paint, mold or asbestos.
Sometimes, the process ends there — if no hazardous materials are found on the site, then cleanup can proceed without specific precautions. Often, though, the next phase is to remove hazardous materials in a way that is safe for the environment and human health, along with proper disposal, by professional contractors.
“We dig and haul a lot of contaminated soils, pump and treat a lot of contaminated groundwater, or scour walls to remove asbestos,” Byrne said. “We see a lot of engineered barriers or caps on a site to protect any folks that are going to live work on the site from those contaminants.”
Once the sites are cleaned up, they can be transformed into any number of community assets, from commercial and industrial spaces to parks and community spaces. Aside from removing toxic materials for the sites, the process creates jobs at all stages, from assessment and clean-up to the jobs at the resulting revitalized site.
What’s more, the initial investment helps the area get over the hump of a site that nobody wants to touch and spurs more investment as the clean-up process goes on.
Other brownfield sites throughout Maine
Other former mill sites hope to achieve similar successes in cleaning up and redeveloping old brownfield sites as they have in southern Maine.
Our Katahdhin, a non-profit organization working to promote community and economic development in the Katahdin region, bought the former Millinocket paper mill site and received EPA funding to redevelop it. It was recently announced that the former mill will be turned into a data center for California-based Nautilus data company, which is slated to be up and running by the end of 2022.
“Those assessment grants are unbelievably catalytic,” said Sean DeWitt, president of the board of Our Katahdin. “Once the data center chose Millinocket as its home, [the assessment grants] give them the assurances they need that they’ll be able to safely build on their timeline. None of these redevelopment plans would be taken seriously without EPA brownfields [grants].”
DeWitt said that the community is already seeing some of the benefits of redevelopment, as new workers start moving into town. He also hopes the redevelopment will create jobs for workers in town, who often have to travel long distances for work.
“We also think that the people who are there now have a lot of great ideas and talents,” DeWitt said. “That’s what really keeps us going.”
Brownfields aren’t limited to former mill sites, though. Schumacher said that the Southern Maine commission conducted a cleanup at a former gas station in Kennebunk that is now a community space and skating rink. A site in Machias was a former dry cleaners abutting the historical Burnham Tavern Museum that had left behind toxic dry cleaning fluid.
Betsy Fitzgerald, board chair of the Washington County Development Authority, said that with brownfield funding, they were able to figure out what hazardous substances were there and safely clean up the blighted site.
“The town of Machias, they weren’t going to do anything about that building because they didn’t have the resources to do it,” Fitzgerald said. “Bringing these properties back onto the tax rolls at a marketable rate as opposed to this is a piece of junk land is invaluable. The ladies who act as docents [at the Burnham Tavern Museum] during the summer open said they have seen more people come to tour the building in part because they can actually see it and know that it is there.”
There are concerns about gentrification that come up, as people who have put up with a blighted site could suddenly get priced out after redevelopment. Grant recipients in Maine have figured out ways to make sure this doesn’t happen.
“Some of the projects do include a certain amount of affordable housing or market rate plus affordable housing and some of the brownfields projects have been affordable housing entirely,” Schumacher said.
The future of brownfields redevelopment in Maine
Though Maine has been successful in brownfields redevelopment so far, there are still plenty of sites across the state that are in need of cleanup.
Because there are so many sites, Amy Landry, executive director of the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments, said that organizations like hers have to prioritize in distributing them where they’ll have the most impact, which leaves voids in other areas.
“Imminent threats are of course important, but redevelopment potential is the biggest one,” Landry said. “We want it to result in economic impact, social or community benefit, like housing or green space that’s needed in a community, so we’re not just picking up small gas stations on the corner of some place with no interest in the site and no projects planned there. We just can’t do it all.”
Schumacher said that the challenge in Maine for brownfields redevelopment is in many rural places.
“You have to be more creative in what you do,” Schumacher said. “It’s in a rural area and then you run into there’s no water or sewer for it which makes redevelopment really problematic.”
For continued success of the program in Maine, especially in more challenging areas, DeWitt said that the partnerships will continue to be important, and more organizations and municipalities will have to continue to apply for the funding beyond the ones that have already received it.
Still, DeWitt believes that brownfields redevelopment is the best way to move Maine into a new economic age.
“Maine has a comparative advantage in a sustainable economy that’s starting to emerge,” DeWitt said. “We have tremendous natural assets. We just need to make sure we’re making this transition in the most clean and thoughtful way and I think brownfields [redevelopment] would be a good way to make that transition.”
Correction: A previous version of this article read “buildings” instead of “businesses.” A previous version of this article misstated the name of the Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission. A previous version of this article misstated where the the mill site in Millinocket was.