This is the first of several stories about how EPA cuts could harm North Carolina’s environment and economic development.A dozen buzzards roost atop the smokestack like sentinels, guarding 15 acres of brick, concrete, steel and debris. Overhead, more buzzards, 25 or 30 of them that cannot fit on the rim, ride the thermals until they reach a tree where they can land.
Here on South Kennedy Street on the southeast side of Robbins, desolation meets opportunity in a babel of sounds: the spooky whoosh of wings, the snarl of an angry cur, the merry refrain of a neighborhood ice cream truck.
The old Robbins Silk Mill once employed 1,500 people — more than the current population of Robbins itself. But that was a long time ago. When the mill burned, in 2008, it had been closed for nearly 20 years. Today, a chain-link fence rings the property, which is contaminated with asbestos and blights the neighborhood.
This year, clean up is scheduled to begin on the old Robbins Mill site, the first step, Town Manager David Lambert says, in revitalizing not only the property but also his hometown. The remediation is funded by a $400,000 grant from the EPA’s brownfields program. Awarded each year to cities, towns and businesses nationwide, brownfields grants help pay for the removal of contamination. In turn, developers can revitalize those properties for other approved economic development projects.We're the town that North Carolina forgot Click To Tweet
But President Trump wants to slash funding for the brownfields program by 44 percent — from $25 million in 2016 to $14 million in 2018. Since the Robbins Mill funding was allocated in 2013, it is safe — probably. “We haven’t got our check yet,” Lambert says. “But we’ve been told it’s coming.”
Future projects with similar promise, though, are at risk. Trump campaigned on his aspiration to abolish the EPA. He claimed its regulations killed jobs and arrested economic development. While eliminating the agency is implausible, the president is making good on his plans to deplete it: The nomination and subsequent Senate confirmation of agency chief Scott Pruitt, who, as Oklahoma attorney general, sued the EPA 15 times; a 19 percent cut in agency staff; and a 25 percent overall reduction in program funding. It’s unclear on what Congress will recommend in its budget, but given the enormous expenses — an increase in military spending and the cost of a border wall — the EPA won’t fare well.
For Robbins, the brownfields grant is irreplaceable. It marks a new chapter in the town’s history. “This whole mill project has been symbolic of the condition of our town for a long time,” Lambert says. “The Robbins Mill was once a symbol of prosperity for Moore County. Now it looks like a Third World country. The grant is about more than economic development or a cleanup project; it’s representative of our community.”T he NC Department of Environmental Quality administers the brownfields funds awarded by the EPA. While most of the money comes from the federal government, some brownfields projects are also partially funded through state fee receipts; none receives an appropriation from the General Assembly.
From 1997 to 2015, according to DEQ’s annual legislative report, 357 projects were finalized, meaning an agreement with a city or developer was in place. Many of the projects revitalized former mills, furniture factories, tobacco processing plants, landfills and gas stations, where contamination had seeped into the soil and/or groundwater.
Another 157 were deemed eligible for the program and 27 were pending. In 2015 alone, completed projects generated a capital investment, much of it private, of more than $786 million statewide.This is symbolic of a renewed spirit of community. Click To Tweet
The EPA brownfields money also covers several DEQ salaries. Through September 2016, federal funds covered eight full-time positions in the state’s Division of Waste Management, including three regional project managers in Asheville, Charlotte and Wilmington. Even before Trump took office, the EPA had decreased funding for these posts. To compensate, increases in state fees, such as those for brownfields applications, cover eight positions.
Michael Adamio, federal fund supervisor at DEQ, told NCPW that he contacted the Division of Waste Management, which implements the brownfields program, and they are “unaware of any impacts to future funding.” But until Pruitt’s confirmation in mid-February, the EPA was in a holding pattern, with little information being publicly released. Trump announced his budget just last week.
“Since I am not currently working directly with any EPA staff,” Adamio wrote in an email, “I am not privy to any information which would affect current or future grants.”
L ambert grew up in Robbins, and came of age when the Robbins Mill was winding down. He attended a ministry program in Louisiana before returning to North Carolina, where he graduated from UNC Greensboro with degrees in political science and sociology. He went on to get his law degree from Elon University, and unlike most young people from town, came back home. He later earned a master’s degree in public administration from UNC Chapel Hill and served as a town commissioner before becoming town manager.
“In the grand scheme of things, North Carolina failed communities like Robbins,” Lambert says. The state commerce department designates economically distressed counties as Tiers 1 and 2, making them eligible for certain economic development grants. Moore County, which includes Robbins as well as the wealthy golfing village of Pinehurst, is designated a Tier 3 county, relatively well-off. But that ratings system doesn’t account for low-income towns like Robbins that are located in wealthy counties, Lambert says. “The federal government has been the only one to help us out. We’re the town that North Carolina forgot.”
More than a third of the 1,000 Robbins residents live below the federal poverty level. Over half the population is Latino. Ninety percent of students at Robbins Elementary School, a mile from the old mill site, receive free or reduced lunch. Some kids who walk past the contaminated acreage each school day, Lambert says, don’t know of the mill’s — or the town’s — glory days. “They have never known anything but a pile of rubble.”
Robbins Mayor Lonnie English started the push to clean up the mill site several years ago as a way to change the town’s trajectory. Once the contamination is removed to certain health and safety levels, depending on the planned reuses, then economic redevelopment can begin: Light industrial, office, housing, a park, a soccer field.
“These brownfields programs help undo the injustices of the past and allow us to move forward,” Lambert says. “This is symbolic of a renewed spirit of community.”