Tincher testifies before Congress; discusses benefits of EPA’s Brownfields Program in Meadow River Valley

By Matthew Young, RealWV

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Greenbrier County Commission President Tammy Tincher, on Tuesday, testified before Congress during a meeting of the House Subcommittee on Environment, Manufacturing, and Critical Material. 

Tincher, who appeared on behalf of the National Association of Counties, joined several other nationally-recognized experts to provide testimony regarding Congress’ potential reauthorization of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Brownfields Program. 

 “Today’s hearing is of great importance to my county, and many others throughout the country – both urban and rural – who are tasked with protecting the environment, ensuring public health, and strengthening the economic vitality of their communities,” Tincher explained during her opening remarks. “The EPA Brownfields Program is one of the most successful programs to help address vacant and abandoned sites at the local level, the redevelopment of which can reinvigorate entire communities and their economies.”

As outlined on epa.gov, the Brownfields Program, “provides grants and technical assistance to communities, states, tribes, and others to assess, safely clean up, and sustainably reuse contaminated properties.” Congress is required to reauthorize funding for the program each fiscal year, as part of their “Revitalize America” initiative.  

“As a county commissioner, I have seen first-hand the positive effects that Brownfields redevelopment has had on my community,” Tincher said. “Greenbrier County is in southeastern West Virginia, and much of the northern and western parts of my county are either national forest, coal land, or private forest land.”

“In years past, the communities in these areas were the commerce centers of Greenbrier County,” Tincher continued. “The coal and forestry industries contributed to a robust economy in the county until their recent decline, which has left communities devastated.”

“The EPA Brownfields Program has been beneficial to Greenbrier County, and other rural communities across the country, by providing funds for the clean up and redevelopment of contaminated sites,” Tincher added. “This helps to attract new business, and provide new opportunities for these once prosperous communities.”

According to Tincher, rural counties account for 70% of all county governments within the United States. Tincher explained that rural county governments must still deliver “essential services to residents and visitors,” despite their significant financial limitations and exorbitant poverty rates. Tincher noted that federal investment in such resources as the Brownfields Program helps to “bolster rural economic development.” 

Watch the full Environment, Manufacturing, and Critical Material Subcommittee hearing from Sept. 27.

“Brownfields in rural areas can include railroad properties, old gas stations, agricultural buildings, and more,” Tincher said. “The EPA Brownfields Program is indispensable to revitalizing these sites in rural communities.”

Tincher cited the  renovations made to the former Rupert Elementary School property as an example of the program’s value to rural communities, noting that the rehabilitated property is now home to Marvel, an early-childhood learning center.

“The western-end of Greenbrier County is a childcare desert,” Tincher said. “This development has allowed services to be provided to those families in need. Additionally, a gymnasium has been restored to provide athletic opportunities to community members of all ages.”

“Major redevelopment on the campus, however, is the renovation of the three-story school building, which will house a medical clinic on the first floor, and senior and low-income housing on the second and third floors,” Tincher added. “All aspects of the project will bring a new life to the Meadow River Valley, and create a community center that will be central to all residents.”

Tincher said that the continuation of the federal Brownfields Program is essential for “removing barriers,” and “providing incentive for private investment.” Tincher not only recommended that Congress reauthorize the program, but requested that it be funded at a higher level. 

Subcommittee Chair Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) was the first to question Tincher, asking, “Do you have an opinion about what currently prevents or discourages small, rural communities from applying for Brownfields grants?”

One of the largest obstacles, Tincher said, is “capacity.”

“The capacity limits of staffing, limitations on abilities to go through [an in-depth, technical grant writing process],” Tincher said. “We find that it’s important to have technical assistance on so many projects. It’s greatly helpful to so many rural communities and counties, and (additional technical assistance) would be greatly beneficial.”

Johnson then asked, “What would the impact of a Brownfields grant be on a community of 50,000 or less?”

“My community – Greenbrier County itself – is 32,000 people,” Tincher replied. “Our largest municipality is 3,600 people. In the western-areas of the county, we have municipalities with 800 people. Much of those areas are very limited in opportunity because of the loss of industry that we previously had.”

“We had the largest lumber mill in the world in my community where I live,” Tincher continued. “In 1975 it closed, and our community has not recovered since. We are faced with dilapidated and abandoned buildings, and empty storefronts. The Brownfields Program allows us to be able to begin the process of redevelopment. It allows us to look at new ways to bring energy and revitalization back into our communities that we have not had in a very long time.”

Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Alabama) then addressed Tincher, noting, “Ms. Tincher mentioned a saw mill. My dad was a logger. I loved going to the saw mill, but a lot of those don’t exist anymore. I also grew up near an area where they did a lot of coal mining, and then a lot of reclamation.” 

“I now represent an area around Birmingham, Alabama,” Palmer continued. “There are thousands of acres in the urban area that could be cleaned up, and used for new schools and businesses. A lot of these urban areas suffer as food deserts. […] (In Alabama) we’re trying to come up with some collaborative arrangements where the EPA can work with the state, or a private company.”

 “Ms. Tincher, you talked about some of this a little bit, so I’d like you to respond,” Palmer said.

In her response, Tincher said, “I believe it is advantageous for counties to collaborate in all aspects of the work that they do, especially rural counties.”

“We are limited with our capacity, as I mentioned,” Tincher noted. “As far as counties working with private companies goes, I believe it can be beneficial. […] I believe having that oversight, having opportunities to be able to collaborate and look at different ways that these private businesses could utilize the properties in the future once Brownfields are cleaned up.”

RealWV will provide updates regarding the reauthorization of the Brownfields Program as additional information is made available. 

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