HUNTINGTON — A local expert stressed Wednesday the importance of brownfields projects for communities throughout West Virginia while testifying before a congressional committee.

He said brownfields projects as small as building a fire department in Huntington or as big as cleaning up an industrial waste site along the Ohio River can make major impacts on their communities.

But first, it needs to be better funded and an easier process for small communities. 

George Carico, director of the West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center at Marshall University, was among experts who testified in front of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields Program. The director discussed local projects to revitalize brownfields that have been supported by EPA funds.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., is the ranking minority member of the committee. She introduced Carico.

“Your forward-looking and innovative approach to maximizing rural participation in brownfields grant opportunities should be a model for other rural areas in the country,” she said to Carico.

The director discussed the center’s experience with brownfields and the importance of redeveloping such sites. The EPA says a brownfield is “a property, the expansion, redevelopment or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant.”

The Marshall center’s work connects with the Northern WV Brownfields Assistance Center at West Virginia University. Both were established in 2005 by the West Virginia Legislature to aid communities and organizations with redeveloping brownfields.

“We've seen firsthand the importance of EPA brownfields funding, how these investments have resulted in strengthening of local and regional economies, while adding new community vibrancy and resiliency to our cities and towns,” Carico said. “Reutilizing brownfield properties for new commercial and industrial businesses, residential use government, recreational use, it's been quite prosperous for several communities. And it's our goal to see more successes, especially in our smaller and more rural communities.”

He added that West Virginia has thousands of brownfields in all conditions and sizes. Because of environmental hazards, known or perceived, they can be a challenge to redevelop.

“Properly assessing and, if needed, remediating environmental hazards is vital to transform these properties into new productive use, while ensuring the future safety of human health and the environment. And EPA brownfields funding is providing this vital component,” Carico said.

The EPA has invested about $41 million in brownfield funding in West Virginia, resulting in about $1.6 billion in leveraged funds and creating 5,400 jobs, Carico said. He also gave some examples of brownfields that have been redeveloped — the Shepherdstown Public Library, the Beech Bottom Industrial Park in Wellsburg and the site for a new Huntington Fire Department station on 9th Avenue. 

“This brownfield site consisted of a former gas station and a dry cleaning facility,” Carico said of the fire station. “Brownfield funds were utilized to assess the property, identify the hazardous contaminants in the soils and ground waters, the site was entered into the West Virginia (Voluntary) Remediation Program, and just recently a certificate of completion was issued. Now, a new and strategically located fire station is under construction.”

Carico said that while these funds have had successful projects, “we have many, many more sites that still need attention, especially in our smaller communities and our rural areas where the number of brownfield properties may be less but are just as equally important.”

He explained that it can be difficult for smaller communities to compete with larger ones with more resources when applying for brownfield grants. In closing, he said the EPA has numerous programs that are valued in communities across the U.S., but called the brownfields program a “crown jewel.” He said some changes to the competitive process should be considered to make it easier for small communities.