The federal government has selected Toledo for a pilot program to train about 100 residents for a new career - cleaning up the city's industrial wastelands.
The $200,000 program, which must be approved by city council, would target minorities and single mothers for free training in redeveloping the city's 60 “brownfields.” Those are vacant sites that can't attract new development because either they're polluted or developers fear them.
Graduates of the six to eight-week academies would land jobs among the handful of Toledo-based firms doing cleanups, earning an average of $18,000 to $20,000 a year, according to the city's division of environmental services.
“It's not a glamorous job,” T. Casey Stephens, the city's brownfields coordinator, said. “It's not for everybody.”
But city officials believe the program could supply steady work for groups of people that historically have lacked access to high-quality jobs. At the same time, it could alleviate a predicted shortage in brownfield cleanup workers.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has given Toledo $500,000 to start a revolving loan fund for brownfield cleanups. That will supplement a $5 million loan fund the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority plans to set up later year with money from Toledo Edison and six local banks.
And Ohio voters will decide in less than a week whether to let the state borrow $200 million to help clean up the 1,200 contaminated sites across the state, as part of Issue 1.
Toledo's strong industrial past has helped contribute to its share of brownfields. Typically the sites housed older factories or warehouses surrounded by working-class neighborhoods.
When the factories and warehouses closed during the past few decades, their owners abandoned the sites rather than clean them to existing environmental standards. Developers shunned the land for fear they'd get stuck with the cleanup tab. As the sites decayed, so did the surrounding neighborhoods.
Toledo - like most cities - began targeting the problem in the past decade. It has received $400,000 in federal aid to identify brownfield sites and help spur the Stickney West Industrial Park, a $40 million to $60 million project that is a major spinoff of the Jeep expansion project.
Under Toledo's program, the city will recruit applicants from eight of Toledo's 28 Zip Codes - 43602, 43604, 43605, 43606, 43607, 43608, 43609, and 43611 - neighborhoods with a higher concentration of brownfields and poverty.
The city, with help from the Lucas County Metropolitan Housing Authority, plans to recruit African-Americans, Hispanics, and single mothers. Those groups have historically lacked access to good jobs and “suffered environmental injustice” because they have generally lived closer to hazardous sites, according to the city's grant application.
Still, the grant requires only that program enrollees live in the city, and Mr. Stephens said the city will not turn away qualified applicants - regardless of race or economic situation.
Those picked will receive the area's first-ever training geared to redeveloping brownfields. Owens Community College would coordinate it, with industry professionals teaching some seminars. The training would center on identifying environmental hazards and safely cleaning up such sites.
Each trainee would get $100 worth of safety equipment, such as respirators and personal protective gear. Most classes likely would be held at local public housing project meeting rooms, where child care would be provided.
The program hopes to place 80 per cent of the graduates at jobs with area firms cleaning up brownfields. Some of the graduates could get extra training from unions representing construction trade workers.
A typical day on the job would depend on the site, but it could range from diagnosing environmental problems to cleaning up tanks of hazardous chemicals, Mr. Stephens said. As with any work environment, employers would be responsible for following federal workplace safety guidelines.
“You will get dirty in these jobs,” Mr. Stephens said. “[But] there's a lot of opportunity in this industry for advancement because there is a high turnover rate [of employees].”