Lands tainted by gasoline, motor oil and chemicals can be public relations nightmares, but Pasco officials plan to use a $1 million federal grant to hunt down those properties and turn those brownfields into greenbacks.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced this week that the county won the grant, a first in county history, to find contaminated properties along the county's major north-south corridors. Once the properties are identified, owners can qualify for cleanup grants and redevelopment incentives.
"(The program) was very competitive," said Philip Vorsatz, brownfields coordinator for the EPA region that includes Florida and seven other Southern states. "Less than one in five who applied were approved."
Pasco County will use the grant to target properties along U.S. 19 in west Pasco, U.S. 41 in Land O'Lakes and U.S. 301 in east Pasco, which includes the Dade City Business Center, formerly an orange juice plant and now the site of a biodiesel plant. Also included is the old Cummer Cypress Co. sawmill site in Lacoochee, among the county's poorest areas. Sites in the cities along U.S. 19 and U.S. 301 also are eligible.
The grant application shows a huge need for cleanup of hazardous sites.
According to the state Department of Environmental Protection, Pasco is home to 2,143 underground storage tanks. Of those, 546 are leaking.
The county also has 53 cattle dipping vats that contained chemicals used to rid livestock of ticks, as well as a host of scrap metal salvage yards, dry cleaners and car and boat repair shops. Even old railroad ties give off arsenic.
"A lot of times it's things you might not even think of," said Melanie Kendrick, the county's senior planner for economic development and redevelopment. "Even dental X-rays back in the day."
Kendrick, along with a consultant, helped write the grant proposal, which will spend half of the money targeting petroleum sites and the other half on hazardous waste.
The county plans to form a committee of stakeholders to develop a plan to review a history of the county and interview longtime residents to track down potential waste sites. The second phase will involve taking water and soil samples.
Owners aren't required to participate, so a key component of the program is to make them aware of the benefits, which include cleanup grants, tax breaks and redevelopment programs.
"It's a touchy subject," Kendrick admitted, but the designation can actually attract investment.
"There are companies that develop only on brownfields," she said. One example of a successful brownfield site is the Ikea furniture store in Ybor City. Home to a cannery from 1936 to 1981, the property was described by local media as "a gritty industrial site." Now it's a destination for chic end tables and bookcases.
County officials, eager to transform Pasco from a bedroom community to one with high-paying jobs, hope to use the brownfield program to redevelop rundown areas such as U.S. 19, which has seen businesses shut down and new developers favoring sites in tonier Trinity.
County grant writers said they fear the empty strip malls will serve as the "broken window" that invites more abandonment and crime.
Along U.S. 301, they hope to provide "economic justice" to a community that for years has been plagued by poverty and crime. In 2003, concerns about the Lacoochee area came to a head when sheriff's Lt. Charles "Bo" Harrison was shot to death in his patrol car as he kept an eye on a nightclub that had been a site of trouble. His killer, a local teenager, is serving life in prison.
It wasn't always that way. With sawmill jobs, the community thrived from 1922 to 1959. After the mill closed, opportunities dried up. Several gasoline and diesel storage tanks were removed in 1987, and officials found contaminated soil. Even though the area was cleaned up, an "environmental stigma" remains, the county proposal said.
Kendrick said the grant requires no local matching money and hopes it will encourage companies to invest in the county.
"It's all coming from the Feds," she said. "People complain about their tax dollars being wasted, but this is money coming back to them to improve the area."