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December 17, 2013

MADISON - First created in the state budget as a one-year project to help the governor, legislators and state agencies tackle the cleanup and redevelopment of contaminated properties, the Brownfields Study Group recently celebrated 15 years as a state and national model for stakeholder involvement.

The group is comprised of local government officials, academia and representatives from the private sector, and is facilitated by Department of Natural Resources staff.

"We are very proud of the achievements of this group," said Darsi Foss, DNR Brownfields Section chief. "If you've seen an old gas station or abandoned warehouse in your community transform into a new or re-located business, chances are this group had something to do with helping make that happen."

Brownfields are abandoned or underused properties with real or perceived contamination. Estimates from U.S EPA have put the number of brownfields nationwide at more than 400,000, with Wisconsin home to more than 5,000 brownfield sites.

"For years local and state officials struggled with how to approach these properties," said Larry Kirch, planning director with the city of La Crosse and Study Group member. "They didn't fall neatly into any Superfund or other federal category, so they sat idle for decades."

With an eye toward cleaning up those blighted properties and returning them to the tax rolls, the State Legislature and Gov. Tommy Thompson created the Brownfields Study Group in 1998. The task force was charged with evaluating Wisconsin's brownfield programs and recommending changes, as well as proposing new financial, policy and liability incentives.

"No one was sure how this would work at first," said Kirch. "But give credit to everyone involved - they put self-interests aside, rolled up their sleeves and got to work in the name of smart and effective public policy."

The first Brownfields Study Group Report [PEF] outlined a host of fixes and new initiatives, including the Brownfield Site Assessment Grant Program, aimed at providing small grants to local governments to assess brownfields for potential cleanup.

The Legislature and Governor Thompson ended up adopting 30 of the Study Group's recommendations, and from that initial success recommended the Study Group continue to meet and provide input on brownfield issues.

"In many ways, the acceptance of that first report was unprecedented," said Foss. "That's a tribute to the hard work of the group and their willingness to collaborate on this important issue."

Since then, the Study Group has provided additional legislative recommendations and rules changes, and today continues to drive important brownfields policy changes in Wisconsin. Successes include:

"Whether it's a new coffee shop or soccer field, re-located grocer or an expanding manufacturer, many communities have reaped the benefits of the Study Group's work," said Foss.

Foss added that the state is a national leader in the brownfields arena. Since the passage of Wisconsin's Land Recycling Act in 1994, more than 18,700 acres of rural and urban land been cleaned up. The Study Group, said Foss, has not only received national attention as a stakeholder model but is now spurring the formation of similar DNR groups for work on air and petroleum issues.

You can watch a slide show of successful brownfield projects or learn more about the group by visiting the Brownfields Study Group of the DNR website.

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Darsi Foss, 608-267-6713

Last Revised: Tuesday, December 17, 2013

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