About 440 properties in Hamilton, Warren and Butler counties are potentially polluted or contaminated -- for which the Ohio EPA has had what it calls "remedial contact" over the years -- but only 30 of those local properties are on Ohio's more serious Brownfield Inventory Database.
The database is a voluntary, statewide inventory of brownfield properties maintained by the Ohio EPA and available to the public. "Brownfield" refers to former industrial or commercial land that may have been polluted or contaminated with hazardous waste.
The 440 sites range from the former 43-acre Blue Ash Airport to what had been the Wonder Bread Bakery in Over-the-Rhine, where environmental regulators had serious concerns about 4.3 acres of industrial property. They wound up on a long list of sites compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency's Division of Environmental Response and Revitalization (DERR).
The so-called DERR list includes spills, cleanups, Voluntary Action Program (cleanup efforts), "covenants not to sue" and more, according to James Lee, media relations manager for the Ohio EPA.
But the DERR list is not a brownfields list, he said.
"The (DERR) list will show that over the history of the agency, some sort of remediation has been done on the property," Lee said in an email.
The state emphasizes repeatedly that its DERR list, which includes some 3,900 properties statewide, should never be confused with its far shorter list of 250 brownfields, which are contaminated sites officially defined as “… abandoned, idled, or under-used industrial, commercial or institutional property where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by known or potential releases of hazardous substances or petroleum.”
While few of the sites on the DERR list are brownfields, all of the state's brownfields appear on the DERR list, Lee said.
A regulator with the Kentucky equivalent of the Ohio EPA had a succinct explanation about why so few properties in Ohio and Kentucky have the brownfield label.
“There's a stigma attached to being a brownfield, and a lot of property owners don't want to be on that list,” said Jim Kirby, an environmental scientist with the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection.
Despite the label, many of the environmental problems at those 30 brownfield sites in Hamilton and Butler counties have been addressed and a substantial number of the properties have already been cleaned to meet EPA standards and then redeveloped.
The nearly 43-acre Blue Ash Airport site, for example, is now part of the 130-acre Summit Park that opened a couple of years ago. The park, which is still under development, features three areas, according to the city of Blue Ash. The park features a common area, an active and adventure play area and a frontier/natural area.
Another former brownfield property, the former Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland building on Fourth Street downtown, has been redeveloped into The Reserve, a 15-story building devoted to luxury apartments.
Lockland Mayor Jim Brown said both of the former Celotex properties that straddled South Wayne Avenue in his village have undergone environmental cleanups and are now sites for new businesses.
Although the presence of completed projects on land that has been cleaned up to meet EPA standards would seem to indicate that the brownfields list is either inaccurate or desperately in need of an update, Lee insists that's not the case.
"The brownfield inventory list is not out of date," Lee said. "Property owners have requested that their property be listed so as to have a publicly accessible accounting of their property's remedial status (in some cases even if redevelopment has already occurred). If a property owner wants the property to be removed from this voluntary list, they may request that to be done -- otherwise the property will remain on the list."
Cindy J. Nolan, brownfield section chief for the U.S. EPA Region 4 office in Atlanta, made it clear the federal government doesn't have any special access to a comprehensive brownfield list for the states.
"An 'inventory' of brownfield sites does not exist," Nolan said in an email. "Unlike other permitted sites, or Superfund (major cleanup) sites, where specific lists exist, brownfields are any property … suspected of having contamination … What we do have is a list of properties we have spent grant funds assessing and/or cleaning up. It, by no means, represents a brownfields inventory. The same is true for the states. They can tell you which properties have brownfield agreements. Their list will be different than ours."
The EPA's Region 4 includes Kentucky, while Ohio is in Region 5. Nolan said her comments accurately reflect the kind of data that's available in either region.
Partly because of a court case that goes back nearly 20 years, Ohio is extremely cautious in its disclaimers for the DERR list. "Not all sites in the database are contaminated," it says, "and a site's absence from the database does not imply that it is uncontaminated … Not all sites in the database meet the federal or state definitions of brownfields …"
Cleveland attorney Joseph P. Koncelik provided some perspective.
"The 'old brownfield list' was referred to as the Master Sites List," Koncelik said. "A landowner did challenge Ohio EPA's authority to maintain the list, in part, because Ohio EPA had no standards for when a property should be listed. The owner challenged that just being on the Master Sites List reduced the value (of his property). Ohio EPA was found not to have the legal authority to maintain the list."
The new Ohio brownfields list, Koncelik said, is completely voluntary.
"Typically, properties are put on the list because someone is seeking public brownfield funding to perform investigation or cleanup of the property," Koncelik said.
Besides working as an attorney whose practice includes environmental law, Koncelik is the former director and chief legal counsel for the Ohio EPA and publisher of the Ohio Environmental Law blog, where he recently wrote a four-part series called "Rethinking Brownfield Redevelopment in Ohio."
Matthew Mullin, senior environmental safety specialist for the City of Cincinnati, said the city often learns about cleanup work that's underway once a developer has begun work on a site. He said it's usually more cost-effective to do the cleanup and site work at the same time.
Over the years, Cincinnati and the region have wrestled with some major environmental contamination projects.
One of the biggest brownfield cleanups in the country -- a U.S. EPA Superfund project -- was completed 10 years ago this month at the Fernald uranium-processing plant, which was located less than 20 miles northwest of Cincinnati near the Hamilton-Butler county line. That project was completed after 14 years at a cost of about $4.4 billion.
Far closer to the center of Cincinnati was Queen City Barrel in Lower Price Hill, which burned down 12 years ago in a spectacular fire and topped the city's list of brownfield projects. The city received a $3 million grant from the state to assist with the building demolition and environmental remediation of the 18-acre site, which has now been rechristened as MetroWest Commerce Park and is available for commercial or light industrial use.