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City gets $200,000 to look for contamination in vacant lots

City gets $200,000 to look for contamination in vacant lots
This is a vacant lot in the Oliver neighborhood. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore is getting $200,000 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to study at least seven vacant and potentially contaminated lots on the city's east and west sides — a first step toward reclaiming them for redevelopment, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Tuesday.

The sites will be chosen with the help of residents in Oliver, Harlem Park, Sandtown-Winchester and other struggling neighborhoods, officials said. Money for the assessments will come from the federal "brownfields" program, which is typically associated with the reclamation of polluted industrial sites.

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But vacant lots in residential neighborhoods can also be contaminated with pollutants such as lead or chemicals from old houses or businesses such as gas stations or laundries, officials said.

The land could become community gardens, parks or be prepared for future development, but first the soil must be assessed to find out whether it is polluted, said EPA regional administrator Shawn M. Garvin.

"We have seen impacts that abandoned, blighted properties can have on a community, making redevelopment challenging under even the best-case scenario," Garvin said. "The brownfields program can help turn that cycle around."

The federal money will be used to pay environmental analysts who will research the history of the sites and test the soil, city officials said. The process could take up to three years.

That time span was a matter of concern for some residents, including Earl Johnson Jr., a community activist in Oliver and a member of the city's Commission on Sustainability.

"Three years is a lifetime to people who are surrounded by green spaces that are used for drugs, used for murders, used for dumping," Johnson said. "Communities want instant impact."

Rawlings-Blake said she understands the sense of urgency, but working with potentially hazardous sites can take time.

"There's urgency and then there's public safety, and you have to balance those things," the mayor said. She said the brownfields assessments are among many programs the city is using to address vacant lots citywide.

"We have to find a way to do better when it comes to these vacant lots," she said. "When that is compounded by soil safety issues from things like former industrial uses or lead paint from old houses, it makes the transformation of those lots more difficult."

The city expects to hold community meetings beginning in the fall to select the sites. Next, officials will select at least seven properties to study. The assessments will include an exhaustive search of the ways the properties have been used over the past 200 years to identify potential contamination.

Officials expect to know by late 2016 which properties will require further testing or if the city could move to immediately rehabilitate any of them.

For land with a history of potential contamination, the city must take soil samples and conduct testing, which could be done as early as spring 2017, officials said. Under the grant, the city's Office of Sustainability must complete the assessments within three years from now.

The number of sites to be assessed will depend on the size of the lots chosen and their past use.

Baltimore has received $1.6 million under the brownfields assessment program since it was created about 20 years ago. Garvin said the city has used the money to study 65 properties, including land that was redeveloped as the Shops at Canton Crossing and Clipper Mill.

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The city is one of 147 communities selected in 2015 to receive brownfields assessment grants. In all, Garvin said the EPA's investment in brownfields reclamation has leveraged $23 billion in redevelopment across the country since 1995.

"These properties were once oil refineries, factories, foundries," Garvin said. "They were vacant brownfields."

Jim Carroll, who oversees the state Department of the Environment's land restoration program, said the assessments take time — for selecting the sites, working with contractors, writing reports and collecting data.

He sees the city's decision to involve the community in choosing the properties to study as key.

"Those are very good goals, particularly in terms of being able to bring these properties back so they can be used by the community and improve the quality of life," Carroll said. "That's what you want to see."

Standing at Bethel Street and Lansing Avenue in Oliver, Bobby Washington said he is anxious for the money to be used as a next step in transforming the blighted corner. The city tore down rows of houses at the intersection and the community has been working to establish a garden, but the 45-year-old hairstylist said much more needs to be done to improve the East Baltimore neighborhood.

"It would nice to have gardens or houses or anything that could benefit people," he said. "I would like our kids to grow up healthy. I would like our kids to grow up, period."

Ricky Tate, 43, looked around the intersection Tuesday, pointing to a pile of rubble from demolished houses, an old stuffed chair and trash overflowing from garbage cans.

"It's been here long enough," said Tate, an electrician. "If you had to live here, is this the way you'd want your neighborhood to look?"

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