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  • Taft to piggyback bond issues

    Activists torn between cleanups and conservation

    Friday, February 4, 2000

    BY Randall Edwards
    Dispatch Environment Reporter

    Ohio environmentalists are conflicted over Gov.

    Bob Taft's two-in-one bond-issue proposal, and some suspect the idea is a silk purse and a sow's ear -- stitched together.

    Taft's proposal, announced Jan. 19 during his State of the State address, calls for two bond issues to raise $400 million. One bond issue of $200 million would be used to clean polluted industrial areas, and another would protect rivers and other natural areas, preserve farmland and create parks.

    Environmental groups statewide are enthusiastic about the latter, the "green space'' half of the proposal, which fulfills a Taft campaign pledge. Since Taft's speech, however, the environmental community has been buzzing over how to respond to the other half -- money to help clean old industrial sites, or brownfields, in urban areas.

    Activists said they would be glad to see these sites restored, but they've long opposed the details of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency's brownfields program because they consider it too soft on polluters. Some see the bond issue as a $200 million bailout of the struggling program.

    And here's the tricky part: Taft plans to blend both proposals as one issue on the November ballot. Environmental activists fear they could be left with two choices: support the package with the brownfields program they hate or torpedo $400 million for environmental protection.

    "It's put the environmental community in a difficult position,'' said David Scott, chairman of the Ohio chapter of the Sierra Club. "The chapter is on record as supporting open space, and I wouldn't want to do anything to jeopardize that part of it.''

    Scott wants more details about the brownfields part.

    "Does it make sense to pour money into a program that is fundamentally flawed? They need to go back to the drawing board and change the whole program,'' he said.

    Under the brownfields program, industries can clean up pollution without talking to neighbors and without supervision by government regulators. The program also provides loans and tax incentives for some cleanups.

    Sandy Buchanan, director of Ohio Citizen Action, was blunt.

    "We're not happy, at least not with what we've heard so far,'' Buchanan said. "We would not, under any circumstances, support using taxpayer dollars to bail out polluters who can pay for their own cleanup.''

    Under Taft's proposal, the brownfields bonds would be paid off using excess profits from state liquor sales, not general-fund revenue. Citizen Action and other groups, however, prefer that the state raise the money by a tax on industry. They would rather see a program similar to the federal Superfund, she said, which taxes the chemical industry to pay for cleanups, and then goes to court to recover the costs from the companies responsible.

    Such an idea gets no support from industry.

    "We're not going to support another tax on industry to have those cleaned up,'' said Tom Froehle, a lobbyist for the Ohio Manufacturers' Association. "I think the governor has a decent solution, although we don't have specifics yet.''

    Advocates for protection of natural areas, worried that the longstanding friction over the brownfields program could erode support for the bond issue, are being careful not to offend anyone.

    "Revitalizing the city landscape is a key component in the effort to preserve outlying green spaces,'' said David Weekes, executive director of the Nature Conservancy's Ohio Chapter. "We see the issue as interconnected.''

    Choosing his words carefully, he added, "The most successful initiatives we've seen are free-standing open-space initiatives. Throughout the country, there has been an enormously high approval rating for programs that set aside open space and habitat.''

    He did not say a combined bond issue would be a loser.

    "I think if the administration is wise in its wording in the bond initiative and is thoughtful about including the constituent groups that support both the brownfields and green space, it certainly has a strong chance of passing.''

    The bond issue might create a real conflict for the Ohio Environmental Council, a coalition of more than 100 statewide and community groups. The council represents organizations harshly critical of the brownfields program and those actively lobbying for farmland preservation and protection of natural areas.

    Jack Shaner, the council's lobbyist, was careful to neither endorse nor attack the bond issue.

    "The governor deserves great credit for identifying two tremendous needs,'' Shaner said. He added that many groups won't want to support the package without serious reform of the brownfields program.

    Shaner thinks Taft will find a way to make the package palatable to most of the environmental groups. "The governor's going to want a plan that our community is cheerleading.''

    It's too early for anyone to raise red flags over the proposal, said Kate Bartter, Taft's executive assistant for environment and commerce.

    Bartter said she'll meet with cabinet members in February to work out details of the proposal. She hopes that the administration can send it to lawmakers in March. The legislature must approve it by May to get it on the November ballot.

    "We haven't nailed down anything yet,'' Bartter said. "People should reserve their judgment.''

    The brownfields effort was added to the governor's environmental bond package because Taft's urban- revitalization task force recommended it, Bartter said.

    She said most of the money raised by the bonds likely will go to local governments or nonprofit organizations. The idea, she said, is to let communities decide what projects they want to do, perhaps come up with some matching money and go to the bond fund for help.

    The state might use a portion of the money to clean up contaminated water supplies, for example, if the company responsible is unknown or bankrupt. And city development departments might use the money to buy contaminated land and offer incentives to private redevelopers.

    The state would not pay to help corporations clean up their own messes, Bartter said.

    "This is about helping communities grow and develop in positive ways for their community,'' she said. "We're not talking about giving money to General Electric to clean up a (hazardous-waste) site.''


    Copyright © 2000, The Columbus Dispatch