Environmental Remediation Program Funding

For the first time since 1996, the Governor has proposed and the Legislature has agreed to an infusion of funding for the cleanup of municipal toxic sites.  It is a relatively small budget item, about $12 million, but will mean a great deal to cities that had unfinished cleanup projects when the original $200 million fund for the Environmental Remediation Program (ERP) ran out of money. The ERP was New York’s first statutory brownfield program, following by nearly two decades the State’s hazardous waste cleanup program, known as “the State Superfund” which gave the State the authority to require “responsible parties” to clean up or pay for the clean-up of the most seriously contaminated properties.  The less significant sites, known as brownfields, remained unaddressed by the legislature until the inclusion of the ERP in the 1996 Bond Act, and later the passage of the Brownfields Cleanup Program (BCP) in 2003.

What makes the ERP unique, and its recognition in this year’s budget noteworthy, is that it is a program only for municipalities. As a result of widespread abandonment of contaminated land after the passage of the federal and State Superfund laws, cities and villages have been left with the responsibility of ownership of these sites. In creating the ERP, the Bond Act explicitly recognized the community decay and blight that results from the presence of brownfields, and the unlikelihood of developer interest or municipal wherewithal to pay cleanups.  It established within the ERP guidance for remediation, liability relief for participation, and a 75% match for the cost of site investigations and cleanup.  Given the universal economic straits of our cities, the 25% municipal share an insurmountable obstacle for most municipalities, and the ERP still had most of its funding when, in 2003, the Legislature reduced the municipal contribution to 10%.  At that moment the ERP became an important program for many cities and the fund was quickly depleted, leaving dozens of applications for new projects or the completion of old ones unfunded.

The program has been extremely popular, and it has also been very successful. The ERP has allowed for the full investigation of 158 sites, and the cleanup of about half of these, opening up opportunities for redevelopment throughout the state.  Because municipalities cannot take advantage of the substantial financial assistance of the BCP – since these are in the form of tax credits – the ERP has represented the only help available for sites owned by local governments, and its depletion left municipalities without resources to finish cleanups or move forward in the development of sites that had been evaluated. This year’s budget will allow for the long-awaited cleanup of many sites that are key to broader revitalization plans, inspired by the original ERP funding. It is also an important recognition by the State’s policy makers that this is a program worth supporting, even in a time of constraint.  As the economy improves, we will look for a higher level of funding and, perhaps, a permanent funding stream for the ERP. 

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