EPA grant should strengthen BDC efforts

CHESTER – With the flat portion of the old Taylor, Smith & Taylor pottery clean, officials are hopeful that a federal grant will bring renewed attention to the site’s riverbank.

The Business Development Corporation (BDC) of the Northern Panhandle learned on Thursday that it has received a $70,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to fund an assessment of the riverbank’s environmental hazards.

“It’s critical that we get that cleaned up,” said BDC Executive Director Patrick Ford. “We actually have prospects that are interested in using that riverfront.”

Ford said the BDC won the competitive grant, available on a limited basis for special projects, because it was able to demonstrate that there would be tangible results from developing the “shovel ready” brownfield site.

The BDC was turned down for a similar EPA grant last year.

“This EPA grant is great news for Chester and Hancock County,” Ford said, “and is the first key step to redevelopment of the riverbank of the former TS&T site.”

Ford said the grant will help make the riverfront, known to be contaminated with lead from old pottery shards, a cleaner area, and will prime the site for development.

“It’s almost impossible for a prospect to get financing for construction … without (the land) getting a clean bill of health,” he said.

“We are grateful for the special funding award … that continues to fuel the process of returning our brownfield sites to productive use once again,” said BDC board Chairman Bill D’Alesio.

A source of local pride for decades, TS&T, after its closing by Anchor Hocking in 1981, became an embarrassment and an eyesore for the city of Chester. City leaders labored in vain for years to get the attention of state government and find funding to raze the vacant, blighted site.

After a few false starts in 2008, the project gained traction in early 2011 when a local committee, known as the Rock Springs Riverfront Redevelopment Committee, formed to oversee the cleanup effort.

In June 2011, the BDC bought the property from Dietz Enterprises for $135,000 and began raising funds to demolish the buildings, remediate the site of hazardous materials such as asbestos and prepare it for future development.

Although the Ohio River was always part of the equation, the project to reclaim the TS&T site in 2011 and 2012 was mostly about demolishing the structures, removing the asbestos and making the land marketable.

Marketing efforts by the BDC since December 2012 have generated some interest but, as of yet, no sales or lease agreements – a fact that has become an increasing source of frustration to Chester residents and officials in the past 18 months.

Ford said the EPA grant, insofar as it hastens the cleanup of the riverbank, should strengthen the BDC’s efforts.

The grant will cover the costs of a Phase II environmental assessment of the soil above and below the waterline, he said. That will involve taking soil samples and having them tested in a laboratory for lead and other contaminants.

“They go fairly deep to make sure they go all the way down to clean soil,” he said.

If the contaminants are above acceptable limits, then further cleanup will be necessary, he said.

Ford said the BDC is about four weeks away from being ready to solicit bids from interested engineering firms. The results of the Phase II assessment will determine what other actions need to be taken.

“We needed to do this assessment to make us eligible for a cleanup grant from the U.S. EPA,” Ford said. “They will be able to measure the levels of contaminants in the soil and give us a cost estimate as to what it will take to remove those contaminants. … We will use that cost estimate to incorporate into a cleanup grant application.”

Until recently, the BDC was not aware that funding was available for a Phase II assessment. In June, local economic development officials met with EPA officials from Philadelphia to strategize on how to remediate the riverbank and how to pay for it.

“A lot of people on the state, federal and local level were working on this because they all see this as a priority,” Ford said.

Local officials reacted enthusiastically to the news of the grant.

“We appreciate the chance to apply for this funding,” Hancock County Commissioner Jeff Davis said. “The ability to clean up brownfield sites is very important because it really helps get rid of the blight and helps fantastic things to come along.”

Chester Mayor Larry Forsythe said, “Without the brownfields program, polluted land is bypassed for redevelopment and, in some cases, taken out of the site inventory.”