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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Riverfront Park receives $600,000 in federal funding as ‘brownfield’ site

The Ice Ribbon skating facility is taking shape Wednesday, May 31, 2017, in Riverfront Park. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The Environmental Protection Agency will give Spokane $600,000 to aid in efforts cleaning up “dirty dirt” in Riverfront Park.

The agency announced recipients of grants under its “brownfields” program Wednesday, which included three grants of $200,000 each targeting the former Canada Island and Havermale Island and the north bank of the Spokane River in Riverfront Park, which is undergoing a $64 million taxpayer-funded renovation.

City officials proclaimed the 100-acre attraction built for Expo ’74 in the heart of Spokane’s former railroad and industrial district a brownfield redevelopment area in September. The federal grant will be used instead of bond money to reimburse contractors for cleaning soil laced with arsenic, mercury, cadmium and other hard metals remaining from the site’s industrial past.

The EPA awarded Spokane all the money it asked for under the brownfields program, which is rare, said Teri Stripes, the assistant city planner in charge of preparing the city’s application.

“It’s pretty unprecedented for one community to end up with all of their asks,” Stripes said.

The brownfields program identifies sites previously contaminated through industrial uses and awards money to spur cleanup and, eventually, redevelopment. Spokane has previously received money for projects in the Hillyard neighborhood, but that money was designated for planning and assessment of contamination, not for reimbursing cleanup costs, Stripes said.

Stripes said there were concerns the program would be put on hold as President Donald Trump’s administration reviewed federal funding of environmental programs. But notification of the grant arrived on schedule, just as workers in the park are putting together signature attractions this summer, including the new ice ribbon skating feature, a new Howard Street bridge spanning the southern portion of the Spokane River and the new home for the Looff Carrousel.

“Some of the soils have been moved and have been stockpiled,” Stripes said. The city will now look at whether that soil can be reused in the new park or must be carted away, in consultation with the Department of Ecology, Stripes said.

The future availability of federal funds is in question. Trump has proposed reducing the brownfields program by 30 percent as part of a budget that reduces overall spending by $3.6 trillion over 10 years.

In a statement, Mayor David Condon praised EPA’s decision to fund the Riverfront Park cleanup.

“We are growing Spokane’s economic vitality one park, one employer, one job at a time,” Condon said. “Much of our strategic plan is built on partnerships, reinvestment and creative reuse of important neighborhood and community assets.”

Planners set aside a total of $2.9 million to cover environmental cleanup in the park, which includes soil removal as well as other activities.

Park planners were initially taken aback by the anticipated costs of cleanup following studies of contaminated soil in the park, adding to higher-than-expected costs for bridge repairs. Stripes said the grant money will allow the city to spend more money on attractions, but the grants will not cover the total anticipated costs of cleanup.

Chris Wright, president of the Spokane Park Board, said it’s not yet been decided how the savings on cleanup could be spent in other parts of the park. The Looff Carrousel building is close to reaching a cap on contingency money set aside for environmental hazards because of the amount of bedrock on the site, he said, and the park’s current budget does not include new features on the western edge of Canada Island or near the current site of the red wagon slide.

“We haven’t had any conversation about where to send this money,” Wright said. “At some point, we’ll probably be realigning the budget.”

Spokane must now present a plan of how they’ll deal with the contaminated soil to the EPA, which would need to be approved before any money is awarded, said Suzanne Skadowski, an agency spokeswoman. The city would have three years following approval of the plan to spend the grant money. Construction in the park is anticipated to last into 2021.

In total, the EPA announced $56.8 million in grants Wednesday that will be awarded to 172 locations across the country. Bremerton, Grays Harbor, Port of Skagit and Skamania County in Washington state also received awards. No grants were awarded to areas in Idaho.