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Proposed bills aim to use excess liquor revenue to fund cleanup of contaminated properties statewide

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Posted at 6:06 PM, May 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-20 18:43:47-04

CLEVELAND — The hollowed out husks of heavy industry may soon be met with a plan to get them primed for new development. Two bills co-sponsored by State Sen. Sandra Williams (D-Cleveland) would catalog every vacant, contaminated property -- known as brownfield sites -- while also using excess liquor revenue to fund remediation and clean up.

The two bills, SB 83 and SB 84, are part of a broader effort to increase the inventory of shovel-ready, job-creating sites for redevelopment, Sen. Williams said.

SB 83 passed the Ohio Senate earlier this week and SB 84 awaits its third reading in the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

"I have been looking at brownfields in my community since I was a child," Williams said. "These things are unsafe. They are a health hazard and we should not have those things in our community."

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The vacant, dilapidated and crumbling industrial building at 7275 Wentworth Avenue in Cleveland's Stockyards neighborhood is a prime example of the health and safety concerns that these relics of the city's industrial past present.

According to environmental assessment records, the former Simkins Box Co. building dates back to the early 1900s although it has largely stood vacant for the better part of two decades. As part of an environmental assessment conducted in 2006, officials found the property was contaminated with carcinogens, heavy metals and other toxic substances. The contamination was so prevalent that the environmental assessment report recommended that future plans for the property should be limited to commercial use -- not residential.

The property sits in the middle of a residential neighborhood with single family homes flanking it on both Wentworth Avenue to the north and Neville Avenue to the south.

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"It's an eyesore. You've got people going up down the street, doing their drugs and stuff by the building," said Richard McCormick, who lives two doors down from the crumbling structure. "You've even got people trying to get inside to do whatever they do. It's eyesore. It's time that it gets taken down."

In 2018, a suspicious fire accelerated the building's decay, ultimately leading to the Ohio EPA and U.S. EPA to expedite partial remediation of the site, including the demolition of a garage-like structure that was heavily damaged in the fire.

That was only part of the concern though.

According to Ohio EPA records, the abandoned factory and warehouse had been used to illegally store millions of fluorescent bulbs, each one containing small amounts of toxic mercury. At the time of the fire, Fluorescent Recycling Inc., a Cleveland-area recycling company, continued to defy state and local orders for years by illegally housing the spent bulbs. Although it is unclear how many bulbs were torched by the fire, Ohio EPA officials conducted air quality tests for several days following the fire. Months later, state and federal EPA officials removed the bulbs and partially remediated the contamination, costing the taxpayers $1.4 million, according to court records.

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The property owner, George Dietrich, and his company, NDHMD Inc., have not paid a dime in property taxes since the fire, according to property records. Dietrich currently owes more than $35,000 in back taxes.

Properties like Dietrich's are common throughout Cleveland and surrounding communities and each one can be a drain on a city's resources. However, on the state level, there is no concrete way of knowing how many of these properties exist through Ohio. Ohio EPA currently maintainsa database of contaminated properties. However, properties are only entered into the database on a voluntary basis.

"We don't even have a list of all the properties that are contaminated in our region," Williams said. "We're talking about health and safety. That's something the state needs to go after."

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Under SB 83, which passed the state Senate this week, grant money would be made available for the state's public universities to study, document and catalog the number of brownfield sites in the state as well as create an estimate of what it would cost to remediate them.

Senate Bill 84, the sister bill to SB 83, would divert excess state liquor revenue away from the general fund and, instead, into a relaunched Clean Ohio Revitalization Fund, a program created by former Gov. Bob Taft in 2002 but later effectively disbanded under former Gov. John Kasich.

"That [excess liquor revenue] has been going back into our general revenue fund, sometimes $70 million, $80 million, $90 million," Williams said. "I tell you that means Ohioans drink a lot of liquor. [The state was] not expecting this money. It's about money coming into our communities that people have already spent on liquor and using it for the greater good. Some people may not like liquor but they do like a clean environment."

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The excess liquor revenue would help communities fund the remediation of the contaminated sites, which can oftentimes cost as much as $35,000 an acre -- excluding demolition. However, once the property has been cleaned up, it can be used to attract new businesses as well as help retain current ones.

"We need to make sure we create job opportunities for people in Cleveland. That's what this bill does. It creates opportunities for companies to come into Cleveland or for companies to expand," Williams said. "By passing this bill, it gives us an opportunity to clean up those parcels and attract businesses into our region. That's important because when businesses want to move into our region, they are not going to wait two, three, four years until we figure out how we're going to clean up our contaminated land."

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