The sun was bright in Duquesne, and Luke Zidek was already sweating. He pulled on a pair of orange fluorescent boots and fixed a respirator over his mouth and nose, sealing himself from the outside world inside of a bright blue hazmat suit.

He flashed an OK sign to his partner, and the two men stepped in unison toward a black barrel lying on its side in a puddle of toxic chemicals. With a wrench, they worked in tandem to plug the leaky spout and enclosed the entire barrel safely in a plastic tank. A stopwatch clicked — just on time.

Luke Zidek (right) and Brandon Sample (left) conduct a hazmat training exercise in Duquesne on July 19.

Atop the site of a former steel mill, this was merely a training exercise. The liquid spilled was nothing more than water. Zidek is one of more than 250 people who have trained through local programs since 2016 to clean up toxic waste and remediate postindustrial sites known as brownfields. Among the hills of Southwestern Pennsylvania and along the riverbanks that have hosted industry for generations, now-vacant brownfields are ripe for cleanup, transformation and reuse.

Pennsylvania is home to 90 Superfund sites on the EPA’s National Priorities List, the most of any state besides New Jersey and California. More than 1,300 brownfields are scattered throughout the state; 276 are concentrated in Allegheny County. And despite Appalachia’s receding industrial identity, new brownfields continue to be created year after year. Decades of remediation could be needed to cleanse East Palestine, Ohio, where in February a freight train carrying highly toxic vinyl chloride derailed and exploded. And decades more will be required to reclaim the scattered relics of our coal history.

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In 2021, Congress passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which allocated an unprecedented $1.5 billion to brownfield-related programs nationwide. It was a significant boon to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s brownfield grant funding. Two local recipients — social services agency Auberle and Landforce, which focuses on land stewardship and workforce development — each received $500,000 in 2022 to train a new generation of professionals who will work to cleanse the region’s industrial messes.

Luke Zidek secures a respirator to his face during hazmat training in Duquesne on July 19.

A new career

The 44-year-old Zidek stepped out of the decontamination pools set up at the parking lot in Duquesne. It was his first time in the suit, and the heat and claustrophobia were beginning to affect him. “I nearly had a panic attack,” he said, panting on the July afternoon.

Zidek spent three years in the Marine Corps handling dogs that sniff for narcotics as a military police officer, and later spent time in Baghdad and Kurdistan detecting explosives as a private contractor. He was medically discharged in 2002 after he fell through a window and lacerated his ulnar nerve, artery and six tendons. “It almost killed me,” he said. Now a disabled veteran, Zidek is turning to a new career cleaning the dirt of industries past. 

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Against the backdrop of climate change and a national shift from carbon-intensive energy and industry, the demand for brownfield work is poised to skyrocket. More than 4,000 regional job openings are expected in the remediation field by 2027 between just five local employers surveyed by Auberle, explained Abby Wolensky, the director of the organization’s Employment Institute. Part of that demand is driven by Allegheny County’s uniquely high density of brownfield sites.

The infrastructure funding more than doubled the amount organizations such as Auberle and Landforce could receive from the EPA grants, up from $200,000 to $500,000. Both organizations have received EPA grants in the past, and the increase in funding enabled Landforce to pay participants an hourly stipend, and Auberle to double the number of program participants.

Auberle trainees learn how to wear a respirator in Duquesne on July 19.

Auberle recruits from all over Allegheny and Westmoreland counties; a majority of participants come from the Mon Valley, “which tends to face some of the worst environmental disparities,” said Wolensky. Between Hazelwood and Homestead, Duquesne and Clairton, much of the riverfront has an industrial history.

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By putting local people to work in places that have been impacted by industry, “they’re helping to revitalize their own communities,” said Wolensky.

Auberle’s brownfield training program has graduated 117 people since 2016, and 113 of them now have career-track employment in brownfield remediation work, earning an average hourly wage of $18.68. Zidek graduated from Auberle’s program in July along with 12 other people, 10 of whom have already been hired with local brownfield remediation companies.

Auberle trainees conduct a simulated decontamination at the site of a former steel mill in Duquesne on July 19.

At his new job at PRISM Spectrum, an environmental services company in Export, Zidek earns $27 an hour and joined the local union; he’ll focus on asbestos and lead remediation. His specialty will be needed in cases like that of the Cheswick Generating Station, which prior to being demolished earlier this year required nearly a year of asbestos abatement and remediation before the structure could be safely imploded.

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Zidek recalled the old pumphouse down by the Monongahela River in Brownsville, where he graduated from high school: “Asbestos all through it,” he remembered. “I think it’s great that they have these grants to clean up these areas and turn them into something useful.” He hopes to train to be a supervisor next, and he told two people at the Veteran’s Administration about the program who plan to enroll in October. 

“I learned the ability to identify markers that are on the chemicals that are being transported through our communities, like on the trains. I could tell if it’s a corrosive or a gas, or an explosive,” said Zidek. “I used to be a chef and a military police and security. I got a whole new career field now.”

Marvin Carmon (front) and the rest of the Landforce crew levels a trail in Beechview’s Seldom Seen Greenway on July 20. Landforce built 1.2 miles of trails in the greenway this summer, clearing invasive vegetation and working to improve the ecological health.

Taking to the trails

A few miles up the river, deep in the forests beneath the hilltop neighborhood of Beechview, a crew of about 20 people wearing highlighter shirts and helmets carried shovels and picks into the woods. The Landforce crew was building a network of trails and restoring balance to the long-neglected woodland.

One morning in mid-July, Thomas Guentner, Landforce’s director of land stewardship, waded through thickets of invasive knotweed, stepping over construction materials protruding through the earth, dumped there long ago.

The work is expanding how we think about brownfields, Guentner explained: “No part of the city was left unscathed by its industrial past.”

Landforce supervisor Rickey Hebron Jr. crosses Sawmill Run to access new trails in Seldom Seen Greenway on July 20.

At Seldom Seen Greenway, the soil quality has eroded from years of illegal dumping, and a lack of forest management has allowed invasive vegetation to grip the hillsides, threatening ecological health. By summer’s end, Landforce tamed dense thickets of vines and pulled bricks from the dirt. The crew built 1.2 miles of new trails, connecting residential Beechview to Brashear High School, and in turn to the greenway’s entrance on Route 19. This fall, Landforce will plant more than 100 native trees and, eventually, the greenway will become one of Pittsburgh’s newest parks.

Building trails aids mobility, said Guentner, who pointed to new opportunities for recreation and creating urban connections to nature. Clearing invasive species makes space for native vegetation to grow, boosting the entire ecosystem. And as Pittsburgh copes with climate change and grapples with intense rainfall, flooding and landslides, the need for well-managed and resilient urban woodlands is only growing.

A Landforce crewmember carves a trail through Seldom Seen Greenway in Beechview on July 20.

“Every program can be a little bit different. And that’s really the beauty of these grants,” explained Gianna Rosati, senior brownfields project officer with the EPA. To receive the funds, she said, “you need to show the backlog of issues in your community, and obviously the Pittsburgh area has that clear need and issue. So yeah, what they’re doing definitely impacts brownfields, even though they’re not doing the soil assessment or remediation.”

Landforce has completed similar work in Hazelwood, which meets a more traditional definition of a brownfield owing to its history of steel production.

Luke Zidek (right) and Brandon Sample (left) laugh after hazmat training with instructor Greg Ashman, of Professional Training Associates, on July 19.

Transforming land, transforming people

Zidek’s time in the military led him to grapple with PTSD and substance abuse. “I struggle with things,” he said. But the programs at Auberle and Landforce are designed to help people overcome barriers to employment such as prior incarceration, addiction history, homelessness or a lack of proven work experience.

Participants in the programs at Landforce and Auberle come from all walks of life.

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Pausing between rounds of grueling work on the trails in July, Marvin Carmon, of Homewood, explained that he joined the Landforce crew to learn new skills, which he hopes to bring back to his own community. “We have a whole lot of land back in Homewood that’s not being taken care of,” he said. He dreams of building a network of trails there, too, so kids like his twin boys can enjoy the outdoors in their own backyard.

Andre Reihl clears vines along a new trail he and the Landforce crew built this summer in Seldom Seen Greenway on July 20.

After completing the horticulture program at Bidwell Training Center in Manchester, Andre Reihl joined the Landforce crew. “I’m hoping it gets me back into the green space,” he said, sharing his dream of building pollinator and rain gardens in his home community of Hazelwood. “I want to make a career out of it.”

By late afternoon, the crew had made its way along most of the trail, smoothing and shaping its contours with picks and shovels and rakes.

“Look around,” called out Shawn Taylor, a former crew member who's now a supervisor. He turned his head to look back to where they began, along more than a mile of new trails that the crew had cleared through thickets of trees and invasive vines. “You all built Seldom Park.”

Wading through a dense thicket of knotweed, a Landforce crewmember clips vines along 1.2 miles of new trail in Beechview's Seldom Seen Greenway on July 20.

Photographs by Quinn Glabicki.

Quinn Glabicki is the environment and climate reporter at Rtvsrece and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at and on Instagram @quinnglabicki.

Jack Troy fact-checked this story.

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Quinn Glabicki is a writer and photographer covering climate and environment for Rtvsrece. He is also a Report for America corps member. Quinn uses visual and written mediums to tell stories about...