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June 2, 2022

Top state, federal officials celebrate $7M in new brownfield funding for CT at blighted Waterbury industrial site 

Michael Puffer (From left) Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments Executive Director Rick Dunne, Waterbury Mayor Neil O'Leary and David Cash, administrator of the Region 1 office of the U.S. EPA, outside the abandoned Waterbury Companies (aka Waterbury Button Co.) complex at 835 South Main St. Thursday.

Top Waterbury, state and federal officials gathered in the cracked parking lot of a crumbling industrial complex in Waterbury Thursday afternoon, celebrating $4 million in new federal brownfield cleanup funds that will help clear away industrial eyesores in the greater Waterbury area.

It is part of a larger pool of about $7 million in new brownfield funds coming to Connecticut, in part, from the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021.

Federal officials passed over a big, ceremonial $150,000 check to Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary. That amount is targeted at finalizing studies of hazardous building materials in the decrepit Waterbury Companies industrial complex, so the city can move forward with demolition of the long-abandoned eyesore looming behind chain-link fence at 835 South Main St.

That brownfield, with its broken and boarded windows, and partially collapsed sections, provided a dramatic backdrop for Thursday’s press conference.

Another $3.9 million of the new federal funding is going to the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments, a quasi-governmental entity providing planning, transportation and development services to 19 Naugatuck Valley municipalities, including Waterbury.

Rick Dunne, executive director of NVCOG, said the money will recharge the agency’s nearly depleted brownfields revolving loan fund, which is used to provide a portion of financing for brownfield projects that would otherwise be economically unfeasible.

Other Connecticut recipients include:

  • Renaissance City Development Association -- $615,000 for a cleanup at 43 Hempstead Street in New London
  • Luke's Development Corp. – $500,000 to clean up 117-125 Whalley Ave. and 129 Whalley Ave. in New Haven
  • The Town of Stafford – $650,000 to clean up the Earl M. Witt Intermediate School at 20 Hyde Park Road in Stafford
  • The Town of Vernon – $650,000 to clean up Daniels Mill at 98 East Main Street
  • The city of West Haven -- $500,000 in community-wide assessment funds to address various sites throughout the city. Intended target areas include properties near the West Haven's former landfill, the city’s eastern gateway and the Boston Post Road areas.

That Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments loan fund has previously deployed $5.2 million in public funds, leveraging $85 million from private investment and other government grants for brownfield cleanups, Dunne said, joking the fund is known as “magic money” for its ability to draw additional dollars.

David Cash, administrator of the Northeast region for the U.S. EPA, stressed that brownfield redevelopments disprove the notion that environmental action is counter to economic development.

“In fact, it’s the opposite,” Cash said. “Those two things go hand-in-hand. And all you need to do is look at any brownfield remediation and redevelopment to see that. Come back in five to 10 years and you’ll see the same thing here.”

Cash was among a string of politically prominent speakers, including U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal; Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Katie Dykes; U.S. representatives Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District and Jahana Hayes, D-5th District; and Janet McCabe, deputy administrator of the U.S. EPA.

The Waterbury Companies was an outgrowth of the Waterbury Button Co., a maker of brass buttons at the Waterbury site since the early 1800s. The legacy of the Waterbury Companies complex is much like that of several large-scale manufacturers that were once the economic backbone of the city. The former driver of prosperity has now fallen into rot and ruin, a dangerous and polluted eyesore and firetrap that taxpayers will pay to remove.

Officials expect to find familiar heavy metals, volatile organic compounds and other pollutants common to metals manufacturing in the soil and water beneath the site. But in what quantities, they won’t know until further study. And those studies can’t begin until the current crumbling complex is demolished and removed.

Brownfield cleanups are costly and lengthy. It costs several million dollars, at least, to clear away blighted factory buildings and address pollution beneath. Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary described the cleanup process as a “ladder with 15 rungs.” The city has probably reached the third rung in the cleanup of the former Waterbury Companies complex, O’Leary said.

O’Leary said he would like to get the factory demolished in 2023, a goal he admitted was optimistic.

After that the city would have to study subsurface pollution, and most likely clear that in whole or in part. That will cost millions more that will have to come from state or federal grants. Then the city can seek out a user for the site.

“People had no idea the mess they were making,” McCabe said during a press conference Thursday. “It’s taken decades to build up and will take decades to fix.”

McCabe and other speakers Thursday stressed the advantages and importance of clearing up sites like the Waterbury Companies, for social justice reasons as well as economic necessity.

McCabe said the Biden administration is targeting 40% of infrastructure spending at traditionally neglected and underserved areas, like the South Main St. corridor.

“This site will be a source of jobs and economic growth, turning blight into might and light, as opposed to what we have today, which is darkness,” Blumenthal said.

Murphy said there are companies eager to build in Waterbury and take advantage of its labor force potential and easy access to two interstate highways. Brownfield funding will help create building sites needed to secure new employers, he said.

“I think we should rename our brownfield program to the ‘Bring Jobs Back Program,’ because that is what we are doing today,” Dykes said.

State Sen. Joan V. Hartley, D-15th District, said the Waterbury Companies site is emblematic of the city’s past as the brass manufacturing capital of the world, and the difficult legacy of its former prosperity.

“So, to be able to reinvent this site is going to be a milestone for the city of Waterbury,” Hartley said. “For us to be able to put the lights back on here, to do the renewal, is going to be a game changer for the city of Waterbury, not just in terms of employment, but in terms of optics.” 

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