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How Montgomery County Land Bank wants to use, revive polluted sites

In a forested area, a man with a yellow work vest is standing next to a drilling rig.
A vacant, overgrown tract of land on Gettysburg Avenue in Dayton is being considered for a remediation plan, so the Land Bank contracted engineers to sample soil and groundwater to identify potential pollution.

Montgomery County will receive $1 million from the Ohio Department of Development to remediate brownfields.

From old gas stations to abandoned factories, these properties can cause environmental and health-related problems. But a successful remediation project can improve the quality of life in the surrounding community.

Beyond the $1 million, there’s an additional pot of money available for pollution sampling and clean-up of these blighted properties.

For this round of funding, the Montgomery County Land Bank has proposed seven projects worth about $4 million that are pending state approval.

WYSO’s Environment Reporter Adriana Martinez-Smiley spoke with Paul Bradley, executive director of the Land Bank to learn more about the significance of this work.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Adriana Martinez-Smiley: Could you start by giving me some background on the Land Bank and what your organization does?

Paul Bradley: Our mission is to reposition distressed real estate to support the county's communities, working towards creating thriving neighborhoods with sustainable real estate markets enhancing the individual residents' quality of life.

Our work is primarily in vacant, abandoned properties. So it can be anything from acquisition, demolition to, brownfield remediation, rehabbing houses.

A cooler is filled with about 15 labeled jars filled with soil.
Adriana Martinez-Smiley
Multiple soil samples are taken to test for contaminants. The type of soil in the earth can also determine how quickly pollution will travel within a given area. Results of the tests will take about a month to come back.

Martinez-Smiley: For folks that might not be familiar with what a brownfield site is, do you want to give your definition of what that is?

Bradley: It's really any property where there is a known or a concern about a potential contaminant, hazardous substance or pollutant on the property.

It could be anything from an abandoned gas station that has underground tanks that might not have been taken care of properly to, an abandoned giant factory like a [General Motors] plant, and kind of anywhere in between. We kind of run the gamut on the type of projects and properties we work on.

Martinez-Smiley: You were mentioning that Dayton is where the Land Bank tends to see the highest concentration of brownfield sites. But could you just tell me the history of brownfield sites in Montgomery County? And I'm curious to know, compared to other communities in the state, are there more or less here? 

Bradley: When you separate brownfields into two different buckets, there are those types of brownfields that any community across this country could have. You know, the old dry cleaners, the old gas stations, things like that. I don't think we have any higher number of those than any other community that has faced an economic downturn.

And then in the second bucket are those larger, old factories. I think when people think about that term, the Rust Belt, having so much manufacturing is a big part of the work environment here. I think we do have a lot of brownfield sites, maybe for even a county and a city our size.

A hole two to three inches in diameter is shown in the ground.
The drill rig is used to insert a tube about 15 feet into the earth.

But, about a year ago, we had a land bank conference in Dayton, Ohio, and we did a tour of brownfield sites here.

And these towns were almost built around some of these factories and, these communities and these neighborhoods are around these factories, because the factory owners wanted their workforce right next door so they could walk to work, they could go home for lunch, all that.

Kind of that whole notion of a factory town, for a long time, that was the driving force in communities like Dayton, Detroit, up and down the US-75 and US-70.

And a lot of those were built along our river corridors, to be frank, which can lead to a whole bunch of other concerns environmentally, too.

Martinez-Smiley: In terms of the potential for a brownfield site remediation, what are they capable of being transformed into? 

Bradley: It really depends on a case by case basis. We don't set those standards, those are set by the U.S. EPA. Obviously, if you want to build homes, those are going to have the highest standards that a site needs to be cleaned up to than, say, if you just want to build a parking lot and you're putting a hard cap over that site, you could have much lower cleanup standards.

That being said, any site could be cleaned up to any use, just depending on how much money you can put into that remediation effort.

But the economics of some sites make it so that if there's such a significant, hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant on the site that you're having to haul out tons and tons of dirt and backfill, that can be cost prohibitive to some uses.

Martinez-Smiley: Could you just discuss why, in your opinion, this work is important?  

Bradley: It's the right thing to do. And especially when you're looking at the historical industrial sites, when they're stuck right in the middle of a neighborhood, and there's no other recourse for these residents to see their neighborhood improve.

Are we going to say "Because you live in this neighborhood and this factory went under and it's been torn down, but it hasn't been remediated, you are are going to be forced to either live by this for the rest of your life and have your housing values go down, have potential concerns about health, or you have to get out?"

That to me doesn't seem right, doesn't seem fair. And especially when we have an opportunity to potentially try to address those concerns.

I think it's part of our mission, and it's part of an impactful way that we can improve the quality of life for residents.

Adriana Martinez-Smiley (she/they) is the Environment and Indigenous Affairs Reporter for WYSO. They grew up in Hamilton, Ohio and graduated from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism in June 2023. Before joining WYSO, her work has been featured in NHPR, WBEZ and WTTW.

Email: amartinez-smiley@wyso.org
Cell phone: 937-342-2905
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