Originally appeared in the Sauk Valley Gazette.
ROCK FALLS – U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, who is touring her district to illustrate how President Trump’s proposed budget, could hurt rural America, turned the spotlight on Rock Falls Wednesday.
The 17th District Democrat toured the Limestone Building site with Mayor Bill Wescott to learn more about removing the largest impediment to redeveloping the riverfront west of state Route 40.
Bustos said she is concerned about proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency and the brownfields program funding that small towns like Rock Falls desperately need to clean up hazardous industrial sites and redevelop them for public use.
“The president’s proposed budget calls for a 30 percent cut to brownfields funding, along with massive cuts to EPA staff that provides assistance to local communities,” Bustos said.
Reports have surfaced in the last few days that the cuts include plans to close the agency’s regional office in Chicago and consolidate its operations with EPA’s Kansas City office. U.S. EPA officials denied the report Tuesday, but Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin has vowed to keep the closure from happening.
Rock Falls has worked extensively with the Region 5 office in Chicago in its riverfront cleanup efforts. The city, since 2005, has received more than $6 million in EPA funding through the brownfields program to clean up the Parrish-Alford, RB&W and Limestone sites.
For the second consecutive year, Rock Falls has been invited to tell its brownfields story at the National Brownfields Conference, Dec. 5-7 in Pittsburgh.
The congresswoman asked the mayor what he thought could be done to improve the brownfields program. Wescott had spoken to Bustos earlier about some snags in the process that have delayed the demolition of the Limestone Building.
The city learned it would receive a $200,000 EPA assessment grant in spring 2014 to get the work started, but more money was needed to address any cleanup that needs to be done. A few inconclusive surface samples have been examined, but at the very least, asbestos will be an issue.
“This is a rare case in which assessment and demolition are done at the same time because of the instability of the building,” Wescott said. “The cost of the demolition is still at $179,000, but we have been waiting on an application for $300,000 for cleanup through EPA’s revolving loan program.”
City officials thought they had the loan last year, but the state’s involvement in the federal program delayed the process, and they eventually were told to resubmit the application.
“I would suggest the U.S. EPA directly handle the funding without going through the state,” Wescott told Bustos.
The revolving loan is finally coming to fruition, and the city is getting close to demolition day.
The city has an intergovernmental agreement with EPA for the loan, and it will be on the agenda for approval at the May 2 City Council meeting, City Administrator Robbin Blackert said.
Bustos said Trump’s budget ax is set to fall on several other agencies and programs that would hit rural communities particularly hard.
“His budget is devastating for small, rural towns, especially the Department of Agriculture cuts,” Bustos said.