EPA Assessment Grant Funding to Transform Tennessee Railroad Corridor in Campbell, Anderson and Scott Counties

Campbell County, Tennessee, along with Anderson County and the North East Tennessee Railroad Authority (NETRA), were recent recipients of a $600,000 Coalition Assessment Grant from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The group, a three-county partnership led by Campbell County, and known as the North East Tennessee Brownfield Coalition, was awarded the grant earlier this year during the EPA’s Fiscal Year 2021 funding round.  

Campbell County’s position as grant lead didn’t happen by chance. The County had prior experience managing brownfield grants having had resounding success with a 2014 EPA Assessment Grant – the only EPA grant award in the state of Tennessee that year. Campbell County Mayor, E.L. Morton, who led the county’s 2014 grant management efforts, agreed to lead the 2021 effort in order to generate a stronger regional tourism economy.

“This assessment grant will allow our communities to build upon success previously achieved by Campbell County under a Fiscal Year 2014 EPA Assessment Grant,” said Morton. “We are eager to support the rural communities within our region that would not otherwise have access to these funds nor the ability to manage a brownfield program.”

Brownfield grants are a significant redevelopment tool as they not only provide funding to local units of government to assess and remediate environmental contamination, but they also strengthen the local tax and business base by eliminating abandoned properties and encouraging investment. Brownfield grants typically fund the cost of environmental assessments which are used to identify environmental liabilities that may prevent a property’s reuse and help determine the cost for potential contamination mitigation. 

For the 2021 EPA Assessment Grant, the three-county coalition outlined two target areas – the 42-mile Tennessee Railroad Corridor and the 1.54 square mile City of Rocky Top in Anderson County – as priority brownfield sites. The Tennessee Railroad Corridor, currently under consideration for abandonment, was used to haul coal out of the Fork Mountain area until it was abandoned in 2013. Eight miles of the track runs through Campbell County, with other portions in Anderson and Scott Counties. The City of Rocky Top, another area with deep mining roots, was listed as a priority site due to the multitude of vacant and aging buildings with known or suspected hazardous materials usage. The grant aims to support both target areas by improving environmental conditions for residents and growing the ecotourism industry.

“We understood that these former mining sites could potentially benefit from brownfield funding,” said Morton. “These sites will be put back into the tax base and back into productive use; brownfields help us get there.”

The Coalition’s plan for the Tennessee Railroad Corridor consists of reactivating the railroad into an excursion route. Strategically placed excursion stops along the corridor will offer adventures for riders and auxiliary services such as campgrounds, equipment rental, and general stores for supplies. The excursion line will support both the rail line and the small communities along the corridor. The Coalition is currently waiting on a decision from the Department of Transportation to determine if the existing railroad is functional enough to support an excursion line. Plans also include parallel and connected greenway mountain bike and hiking trails which would be complimentary to the Indian Mountain, Norris Dam, Cove Lake and Cumberland Trail State Parks, Royal Blue, Brimstone and Wind Rock Off-Road Trails, Big South Fork, Manhattan Project and Cumberland Gap National Parks short-term rentals and campgrounds, and Norris Lake’s marinas, hotels, parks, restaurants, campgrounds, and retailers.

Additional redevelopment sites include the Stony Fork School and a former grocery store in the City of Rocky Top. The repurposed school will support local ATV trails and visitors from the excursion railroad, while the former grocery store will be restored to its original function, providing residents access to healthy food options. 

In addition to the grant award, the three counties were also collectively designated as home to two shared U.S. Scenic Byways in 2021: The Cumberland Historic Scenic Byway and the Norris Freeway and Scenic Byway, further outlining the interconnected tourism and business assets between the three counties.

“Campbell County has leveraged brownfield funding for private industry investment for job creation, as well as support for the growing ecotourism opportunities in the region,” said PM Environmental’s National Manager of Brownfields and Economic Incentives, John Hargraves. “With this new round of funding, those goals can continue to be met.  Any property owners, developers, or other stakeholders that have an interest in specific properties or want to explore what is available, please contact us to have a conversation.”

PM Environmental assisted the Coalition with writing and submitting the successful grant application to the EPA and has been Campbell County’s brownfield consultant since 2014, when it assisted with writing and submitting the County’s successful 2014 Assessment Grant.

Environmental assessments, including dozens of Phase I and II Environmental Site Assessments (ESAs) and several cleanup plans, will be conducted at both priority and secondary sites within the Coalition’s footprint. Public engagement activities are expected to commence in the coming months to give residents living within the study area an opportunity to learn more about brownfields and the goals of the grant.

Additionally, property owners across all three counties may apply for brownfield assessments on their private property if the property was previously used for purposes that involved petroleum, coal, quarry, tar, asphalt, or concrete plant operations, or if there was significant construction like rail lines, dams, electric grid, or chemical treatment functions like dry-cleaning, leather tanning or leather or dyed clothing manufacturing.