Tulsa Sees Potential in Cleaning Up Brownfields

Article excerpt

While many high-profile properties have been cleaned and transformed into productive sites through the state's brownfields program, there likely is still much work to be done, a state environmental official said. And at least one Oklahoma city is looking to capitalize on the program.

"There is a large number of sites left, if you include all the buildings that have asbestos and lead paint," said Rita R. Kottke, remediation programs manager for the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality.

When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency started encouraging states to create brownfield programs in the mid-1990s, the Office of Management and Budget estimated that there were 450,000 brownfields nationwide, she said.

"This number represented known, defunct industrial sites," Kottke said. "That was prior to indoor asbestos and petroleum (former gas stations) being added as brownfield contaminants."

Currently, nationwide there are millions of brownfields that need to be cleaned up, she said.

Just a few of the success stories in Oklahoma City include Bricktown, Skirvin Hilton Hotel, Dell call center and the Devon headquarters, Kottke said.

"There have been so many," she said.

Bricktown, for example, was underused for decades before Oklahoma City decided to redevelop it, Kottke said.

"It was a lengthy process since there were so many small sites that were consolidated into the application," she said. "Oklahoma City Urban Renewal broke the area into large parcels for the cleanups."

The investigation and cleanup took about seven years.

The Skirvin Hilton Hotel, closed in 1988, deteriorated for 16 years prior to Oklahoma City finding the capital and private partners to abate asbestos and ensure that the redevelopment moved forward, Kottke said.

In 2005, the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality loaned the city the funding to abate the asbestos.

"Once the building was clean, the developer moved forward on the revitalization of the historic hotel," Kottke said.

The Skirvin Hilton reopened to huge fanfare in 2007.

The site of the Devon tower had underground storage tanks and contamination associated with petroleum, Kottke said.

Development dreams

Tulsa, meanwhile, is working to use the brownfields program as an economic development tool, said Clay Bird, Tulsa economic development director.

"We almost never had a program; it was more reactionary in that we'd respond when people called to ask about what we had to offer," Bird said. "Now, what we are doing is focusing on using it (brownfields program) as an economic development strategy to come up with a playbook. It is still evolving."

The program could stimulate economic growth and development by acting as a method for tax-exempt financing and a way to attract grant dollars, Bird said.

Although Tulsa is revitalizing its brownfields program, there have been several successful property renovations, Kottke said. They include the BOK Center, the Mayo Hotel and the Brady Village downtown. …