A program that builds green infrastructure in the D.C. area sustains the environment, local workforce

Allyson Chiu - The Washington Post
March 13, 2018

Raymond Coates did not think he was going to make it to the end of his first day on a new job. The 58-year-old D.C. resident had never worked construction before, yet there he was on a warm fall day, struggling to move dirt in a wheelbarrow, and regretting decisions to skip breakfast and not pack a lunch.

But Coates said he knew he had to stick it out. He left a job in community social services to pursue a career building and maintaining landscapes that would help make the Earth a greener place by controlling pollution.

“It’s worth being the last professional effort of my life,” Coates said.

Last year, Coates, discovered the National Green Infrastructure Certification Program. Created through a partnership between DC Water and the Water Environment Federation, the program educates and trains new workers in how to build, inspect and keep up green infrastructure like rain gardens, roof gardens and pavement that absorbs water. The projects can slow, clean and sometimes reuse storm water that otherwise would flow dirty and unchecked into area waterways.

Coates’s desire to change jobs surfaced almost a decade ago when he decided he needed to do something about the pollution from heavy car traffic in his Ward 7 community.

Inspired by a documentary about plants, he said, he started brainstorming how to create gardens and other green spaces that could improve the air and water quality in his neighborhood.

“It’s something different from going to a park . . . It’s something that’s a part of your everyday life,” Coates said. In the plan he pictured, “you come out of the house and the bushes are right there. Now, you come out of the house and there’s no bushes, there’s just a dirt patch with a tree on it. We can change that.”

Coates didn’t know the phrase for what he was envisioning but came to learn it: green infrastructure.

“When I saw green infrastructure, I realized that what I was fixing to do was already here, I just had to learn it,” Coates said about how he came to be part of a D.C. jobs training effort.

Green infrastructure is now a major part of the Clean Rivers Project, the District’s $2.6 billion plan to reduce the amount of sewage overflows into the area’s waterways when runoffs surge, said Bethany Bezak, the project’s green infrastructure manager. Before 2016, the program relied on building a system of tunnels — or “gray infrastructure” — to store storm water and raw sewage, and transport it to a treatment plant, Bezak said.

Because home and business owners will face higher water bills to help pay for the Clean Rivers plan, Bezak said the water authority wanted the community to see some of its investment by creating jobs to build what will become neighborhood amenities.

The free D.C. training program focuses on recruiting people who are out of work or need help finding a steady career — which sets it apart from a majority of similar green jobs programs in the region that often train county employees, landscapers and engineers, Bezak said.

Coates had been employed at a community social services organization for nearly two decades, but the training program helped him start a career in environmental work despite his lack of experience and a criminal record.

“It would have been a lot more difficult for me to transition,” said Coates, who is a full-time employee of Anchor Construction.

Three training sessions have been held since 2016 and a fourth is scheduled for April, Bezak said, with a March 21 deadline for registering.

To become certified, program participants need a high school diploma or GED, and must complete the training and pass an exam, Bezak said, with the goal of giving city residents stable jobs at livable wages.

Contractors who work for DC Water hire the District residents with certifications, and the water authority has found jobs for half of the 33 people who have been certified since 2016, according to DC Water spokesman Vincent Morris.

“We really are changing people’s lives,” Bezak said. “Many of these individuals didn’t feel like they had a pathway to jobs. They didn’t have a sustainable future.”

Coates was certified in late June last year and by September he was on a site helping install permeable pavement that would allow storm water runoff to seep into the ground, preventing flooding and filtering the water.

“The thing that impressed me most was the fact that they said point blank, ‘If you take this class, you pass this test, you will be working by this date,’ ” said Coates, whose new job pays about $20 an hour — with benefits — for work on DC Water projects.

Coates is one of more than 260 people across the country who have been certified by the program since it launched as a pilot project two years ago.

The pilot ended in December and is on the cusp of a national rollout, said Tim Williams, deputy executive director of the Water Environment Federation. During the pilot, the program was funded by WEF and individual municipal partners, Williams said. Other states with municipalities that participated in the pilot include Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri and Wisconsin.

Randy Bartlett, deputy director of Fairfax County’s Department of Public Works and Environmental Services, said the certification program addresses a need for more consistency in practices across the country. Green infrastructure, he said, is still “relatively new to people.”

“We’re on a steep learning curve, but I think by doing programs such as this, standards and specifications are getting better,” Bartlett said. “We’re in touch with communities around the country learning . . . the tricks of the trade, or the best practices.”

Montgomery County aimed its initial training at developing skills among county staff and in the workforces of companies bidding on county contracts, said Ann English, who works for the county’s Department of Environmental Protection. Everyone in last fall’s program who took the exam passed, said English, who manages a program that encourages county residents to use landscape or design techniques on their properties to help decrease storm water runoff.

Lynette Scaffidi, who attended the Montgomery training and is a managing owner of Empire Landscape in Silver Spring, Md., said she foresees a time when certification will be a requirement to work on green infrastructure.

“Because it’s a technical type of thing,” said Scaffidi. “It’s not just you stick a bunch of plants in the ground.”

Coates would second that assessment.

On a recent dreary morning it was barely half past eight and Coates already was hard at work shoveling rocks and hauling them in buckets.

He moved with confidence, not once faltering on the bed of loose rocks, a stark difference from the man, who in September, struggled with a wheelbarrow.

“My first impression about Raymond, I was scared [for him] on the first day,” said Coates’s foreman, Edmundo Nunes. Now, Coates is close to matching the speed of the rest of the crew, Nunes said, “still not there, to be honest, but much better.”

Nunes said Coates is always asking questions about what is happening on the site and is interested in seeing construction plans.

“I’m trying to learn as much as I can and be studious and open-minded and let people teach me something,” Coates said. “I consider it wondrous that in my journeys this is where I arrived.”

Coates said he hopes to one day run a landscaping business that would make his neighborhood greener and employ local residents.

A shovel still gripped in his hand, Coates looked over the gray rocks that would become a patch of permeable pavement, and smiled. He said he sometimes pictures his grandchildren walking across a landscape he helped build.

“This is the beginning of how the world is going to be long after I’m gone,” he said.