You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes or any of his high-tech successors to find brownfield sites in Northern Kentucky.
The 18 properties that have been labeled as brownfields by the state in Northern Kentucky all are located inside Kenton County. And, more specifically, all are inside Covington and Ludlow, according to the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection (DEP), which said its list is current through Sept. 30.
The state list includes some prominent properties in Covington -- some of which are in the downtown business district and within a block of City Hall.
Earlier in the week, for example, the Covington City Commission approved a development agreement with an Indianapolis firm that has plans to demolish a former bank building at 501 Main St. and replace it with a new structure that will include 187 apartments and commercial space on the ground floor. The project, with an estimated price tag of $20 million and a start date of March of next year, also will include a parking garage with 314 spaces.
The site, described by the city as the "Gateway to MainStrasse," a neighborhood that includes restaurants, bars and small shops, is described by the state, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Northern Kentucky Area Development District as a brownfield.
DEP defines brownfields as "properties that are abandoned or underutilized due to real or perceived contamination." DEP estimates about 8,000 brownfields are scattered across the state. They include sites such as old gas stations, mine-scarred lands, abandoned factories, old schools and hospitals and meth labs.
Properties wind up on the list of brownfields when the state has provided some kind of assistance for an environmental assessment or a cleanup or if the property owner seeks financial incentives to eliminate a brownfield, said Herb Petitjean, brownfields coordinator in the Energy and Environment Cabinet.
The property at the corner of Fifth and Main appears on the state brownfields list, on the U.S. EPA "cleanup" list that shows that two assessments have been completed, and on a list of "perceived brownfields" that was compiled by the Northern Kentucky Area Development District, an eight-county planning and development agency.
The Main Street property is one of 164 "perceived" brownfields in Covington, Ludlow and Taylor Mill in Kenton County and in Newport, Bellevue, Dayton and Wilder in Campbell County, according to Dominique DeLucia, public administration specialist for the development district.
"It is important to note that these are perceived brownfield sites," DeLucia said.
"It is also possible that some of these properties are now clean and home to active businesses," said DeLucia, who added that she is in the process of mapping the 164 sites.
According to the state, asbestos, lead-based paint and hydraulic oil from the elevator are potential environmental hazards at 510 Main St.
"Those reports (the two assessments) expire over a period of time and need to be updated, so the developer will be doing that," said Donald Warner, development manager for Covington. He said he does not think there are serious environmental problems at Fifth and Main.
Tom FitzGerald, a lawyer who heads the Kentucky Resources Group, an environmental group based in Frankfort, said it's not unusual to find brownfields near the heart of a city.
"As people began to move out from the cities in the '60s and the '70s, a lot of property (that had been contaminated) was abandoned," FitzGerald said.
FitzGerald and his organization played a role in the passage of the state's Voluntary Environmental Remediation Act, which was designed to encourage brownfield cleanup efforts. Through the program, property owners can get assurance from the state -- a covenant not to sue -- that guarantees they will not face environmental sanctions in the future, FitzGerald said.
In both Kentucky and Ohio, suspected brownfields where no effort has been made to clean up a site rarely wind up on the brownfield lists.
In Greater Cincinnati, just 30 properties in Hamilton and Butler counties are on the Ohio Brownfield Inventory Database, which is the equivalent of the brownfield list in Kentucky that pinpointed the 18 Kenton County sites.
And just like Ohio, there are a number of different lists in Kentucky that make references to brownfields, a label that both states use cautiously because of its negative denotation and connotation.
"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 DEP.
And, as is the case in Ohio, there seems to be little coordination between the different agencies that tackle brownfield issues in Kentucky. While acknowledging that there may be as many as 8,000 brownfields inside its borders, Kentucky's statewide list includes only about 150 properties, including the Kenton County sites.
All but two of those Kenton County properties also appear on the U.S. EPA cleanup list, and nine of the properties appear on both the state and the area development district lists.
The development district list of "perceived brownfields," of course, includes more properties than the entire state list.
Things get even more complicated when the U.S. EPA brownfield "cleanup" list is examined. That list includes 38 properties in Kenton County, more than twice the number of properties that appear on the state list.