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Mining Community Tackles Brownfields

“Imagine living in a place with access to a four-lane highway connecting Canada to the Rio Grande, surrounded by rolling hills, clear streams, and wooded parks,” says Shawn Grindstaff, director of the St. Francois Mountains Environmental Policy Institute in Bonne Terre, Missouri. “You’d think this was a community developer’s dream town until you saw the giant Superfund pile near the center of the city with 2.2 million tons of contaminated lead waste in it, not to mention the 120 acres of brownfields on the pile’s periphery. Then you’d know that some pretty significant things had to be done if you wanted to stop new businesses and industry from going to the greenfields stretching out 50 miles in every direction.”

That is exactly what Grindstaff has done since he returned home to Bonne Terre in 1994 with an environmental law degree from the University of Wyoming to head the policy institute at Mineral Area Community College. Now, after much perseverance, his hard work is paying off. Over the past 6 years, Bonne Terre has established a comprehensive brownfields program. For the first time in 135 years, the small city with a population of 4,000 is experiencing new development on its abandoned mining properties. Two 3-acre former brownfield sites have been remediated and redeveloped, and plans are being drawn to build a large-scale industrial business park with recreational and open areas on another 85 acres of brownfields.

Bonne Terre lies in the Eastern Ozarks, 55 miles south of the St. Louis metropolitan area and just a short distance from the Mississippi River. Located in Missouri’s old Lead Belt, and corporate headquarters for the St. Joseph Minerals Corporation, Bonne Terre was once called the “Lead Capital of the World.” It was the best-known mining area in the old lead belt of Missouri, which for more than a century provided nearly 80 percent of the nation’s mined lead.

When the St. Joseph Minerals Corporation ceased operations in 1961, the one-company, one-industry town realized it needed to find new ways to generate jobs. It also had a potential health problem on its hands because of exposed mine wastes—a problem that was difficult to confine. “Whenever the wind whips up or we have a rainstorm,” says Grindstaff, “this stuff just moves around, so we have a constantly shifting checkerboard of clean and contaminated zones in this city.” Furthermore, residents had difficulty coming to terms with its environmental problems, Grindstaff explains. “It was something we didn’t want to face up to for a long time because our lives had been so tied to the mining industry.”

Grindstaff believes that the Mineral Area Community College was pivotal in helping to turn things around. As a first step, Grindstaff was able to convince a city council member, who has since become the mayor, to make brownfields redevelopment one of her top priorities. “I think the community college’s neutral role enabled the community to come together on this issue,” says Grindstaff. “I also think it helped that I was from the area; we tend to look a little suspiciously on outsiders here.”

The community college helped the city to form a brownfields committee made up of the mayor, the city manager, the city economic development director, and representatives from the mining company now responsible for cleaning up the Superfund site. The city made a successful application to EPA for a brownfields pilot assessment grant in 1996. With the brownfields assessment grant, the city was able to bring together community groups, investors, lenders, developers, and other affected parties to address the issues of cleaning up the contaminated sites and returning them to productive use.

The committee came up with various tools for financing brownfields redevelopment, including traditional grants, innovative public-private partnership arrangements, risk- limitation techniques, and tax incentives. They used these incentives to outweigh Bonne Terre’s environmental problems so that the old mining town could successfully compete with the greenfields outside its city limits.

Convincing skeptics. The city has successfully remediated two 3-acre brownfields, which, in turn, has permitted construction of a new regional medical center, the first primary-care facility in the city limits, and a new gas station/convenience store/car wash complex. The two developments have created 23 new jobs.

“The minute a developer believed enough in our brownfields program to take a chance at successfully redeveloping a property, all of the naysayers and skeptics took notice,” says Grindstaff. “This has started a snowball effect in the community—the belief that things can change.”

Most recently the city has acquired the option to purchase the remaining 120 acres of privately held brownfields. The city can now move forward with site assessment on this acreage and eventual realization of its dreams for a multiuse Green Trails Industrial Business Park.

For more information, contact: Shawn Grindstaff, Director of the St. Francois Mountains Environmental Policy Institute, Mineral Area Community College at (573) 518–2153.

Or see: “Bonne Terre, Missouri,” in Reclaiming Rural America’s Brownfields: A National Report on Rural Brownfields Redevelopment, December 1999. National Association of Development Research Foundation, 400 North Capitol Street, NW, Suite 390, Washington, DC 20001.

Brownfields Tips for Small Communities

Almost every community in the United States has one or more abandoned or vacant sites for which redevelopment has been impeded by the fear of environmental contamination and resulting liability. Tackling brownfields in a small city with limited resources poses special challenges. Bonne Terre’s Grindstaff has the following advice for small communities:

  • Find a local champion who can serve as an ongoing point of contact and clearinghouse on brownfields for your city council, developers, lenders, and realtors. This person must be knowledgeable about environmental regulations, liability issues, market conditions, and financing mechanisms.

  • Investigate whether your community college can serve as a resource for grant writing and other technical assistance services.

  • Cultivate one or two members of your city council—educate them about the issues, bring them to national brownfields conferences, get them excited about what brownfields redevelopment can mean for your community.

  • Develop strong working relationships with your EPA and HUD regional offices—they can give you important advice and alert you to funding sources.

  • Work with your state environmental agency to streamline its regulations and programs so that they are responsive to the needs of smaller communities.

  • Seek out other small communities that have been successful in brownfields redevelopment like Bonne Terre. Learn from their experiences. Do not try to reinvent the wheel.

  • Understand that this problem will not be solved overnight. It requires a long-term commitment to get the job done.

  • Collaborate to win. Keep open lines of communication, even with those who are not always in agreement with your position.


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