The Mitigation Connection

With increasing competitiveness for grants among applicants, an economic recession affecting local support for parks operations and projects, and state-level cutbacks nationwide for prioritizing funding, many park directors are turning to non-traditional ways to fund projects.

Alternative mechanisms and strategies to finance projects will offer park and recreation directors optional avenues to fund their projects.

These mechanisms and strategies will be the focus of The Grant Finder, a new column designed to provide parks and recreational professionals with viable alternative funding and grant outlets.

One alternative mechanism gaining momentum is the use of state Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mitigation of environmental fines to support local parks and recreation projects.

Mitigation, by definition, is the act of causing something to become less harsh or hostile, or to lessen the severity of an act.

For our purposes, mitigation is changing the definition of funding from a state fine to a local sponsorship grant, thus funding local parks and recreation projects in the area where violations occur.

Use of mitigation-funded opportunities may be an untapped resource to provide for parks operation costs, new parks and recreation project design and implementation, trail planning and design, rehabilitation of properties for future parks, and water quality initiatives.

Mitigation Initiative

Many public and private organizations, including most manufacturing organizations, and many public and private water and waste facilities, must comply with state and federal rules and regulations to protect human health and the environment.

Non-compliance with rules and regulations for air emissions, water and waste discharges, permits to construct or operate, proper disposal of waste, and the release of hazardous waste or petroleum, result in a violation.

Depending on the nature of impact of a violation, the standard protocol for a state agency is to issue a "notice of violation", or "notice of non-compliance" to the responsible party or entity.

These notices are made available to the public via the state agency's Web site, newspaper, or other public mechanism such as a weekly publication or monthly account of agency activities published by the state agency.

Once the notice is given, the entity that is out of compliance begins a process to negotiate the correction of the environmental deficiency or violation, and/or pay a fine.

This process is negotiated into what are often called "Findings and Orders", or "Enforcement Orders", which set forth a series of actions to be completed for compliance, and assessment of a fine, against the operator, based on the violation and the Statute.

During this process, state agencies often consider mitigation of fines by allowing the violator to offset the amount of the fine assessed by paying all or part of their fine toward sponsorship of a local project approved by the state EPA.

Criteria for sponsored projects vary nationally, but may provide for public health and environment benefits, or community benefits.

Since most regulatory standards imposed on the private sector control or reduce economic benefits such as increased taxes, mitigation can be a means to pay for lost economic revenue in a local community.

In order to take advantage of potential mitigation opportunities, several steps are helpful...

1. Build a relationship with your regional contact at the state's EPA, and let them know your project's needs that might fit in with a potential non-compliance activity that may be occurring locally.

2. Meet with local manufacturing companies, private developers, or organizations in your area to keep them abreast of upcoming operational needs or projects.

3. Advertise your project, or financial need for the project through public relations media outlets such as newspapers, magazines or public meetings.

Timing is key. Mitigation for small-scale violations is often only considered during the period between when a notice of non-compliance is issued and when findings and orders are drafted. The exception is large-scale projects, like the nation's largest landfill slide in Cincinnati in 1996, where 15-20 acres of solid waste broke through the retaining wall of the landfill's foundation, and open dumping of waste occurred and caused environmental impacts to air, land and surface water.

Ohio reacted by allowing a portion of the fines to be mitigated for local projects, selected by the state EPA through a proposal process.

Projects that applied were in the landfill's multiple-county service area and had to provide a substantial community benefit, or benefit to human health and the environment. Ohio had a formal Request for Proposals process that was evaluated by a review panel created specifically for the process. Mitigation projects were awarded for a five-year period, funded from a portion of the fines accessed of the private landfill.

In general, in order to apply for mitigation opportunities, send a letter to your local environmental protection agency division of compliance or enforcement, and let them know of your interest.

Successful applicants communicate their project needs most effectively to state agencies prior to enforcement cases being decided in order to receive funding. In other words, successful mitigation projects occur when the enforcement agency staff knows about projects prior to enforcement actions.

As grant funds become increasingly competitive, consider mitigation as a means to access funds in your community for parks and recreation projects.

Betsy Bowe is grants and regulatory affairs manager for Environmental Design Group Inc., Akron, Ohio.