LORAIN — The work is hard and the pay is low, but members of the Black River Conservation Corps are keeping the river flowing.
Since May 5, corps members have been on a 40-acre site at the former Lorain landfill by the river behind the Camaco auto parts plant at 3400 River Industrial Park Road. The area is part of Lorain County Metro Parks. They have been removing invasive plants like phragmites and purple loosestrife that threaten to choke off the river.
The work, which began last year, continues through 2016. It is being paid for with nearly $1.5 million in federal taxpayer grant money from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as part of the EPA’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the goal of which is removing invasive plants and species from the Great Lakes basin and restoring native plants.
The work, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday weather permitting, can be back breaking.
Some plants are 15 to 20 feet tall and hard to reach when spraying herbicides. Plants that are cut are placed on tarps and hauled to trucks. Workers, who earn $11 per hour, deal with bugs, fetid water, heat, mud, rain and plants that they say can cut through boots if they’re not steel-toed.
“It’s nasty, (but) it keeps the bills paid,” said worker LaFonza Johnson, a 50-year-old former machinist from Lorain, who was sweating profusely after hauling out piles of phragmites Monday. “This is what I expected, nothing more and nothing less.”
While Johnson said he knew what he was getting into, others didn’t. The corps started out with 31 workers but is down to 20 — 16 men and four women — said Lyn Ickes, a Lorain County watershed specialist supervising the workers.
Some workers got other jobs, but some couldn’t handle the conditions. Ickes said workers are instructed to take water breaks every 30 minutes to prevent dehydration or passing out, but conditions are tough.
“It’s hot and it’s humid, and you can’t just stop,” Ickes said. “It’s kind of like an outdoor factory.”
All of the workers had been unemployed, some long term. Workers ages range from their early 20s to 65-year-old John Paisley, a retired truck driver from Amherst.
Paisley, who took part last year, said the trails cut last year have made work easier. He said he tries to pace himself.
“Individually, you’ve got to think you did the best you could for that day,” he said. “Not everybody’s going to handle the heat the same way.”
Tyrone Bankhead, a 45-year-old former Subway worker from Lorain, also worked last year on the restoration. He said the work is more grueling than he expected, but he has a better idea now of what he’s doing than he did last year.
In late September and early October, after herbicide spraying is done, workers will plant grass and willow trees. When restored, the area may become a nature preserve or bicycle trail, said Donald Romancak, Lorain County community development director.
Ickes compared the effort to reclaiming a strip mine because pollutants in the landfill limit options. The landfill closed about 1975, Romancak said. While there are questions about the future of the land, Ickes said there is certainty about the need to keep the river flowing.
She said it’s crucial for fisheries, shipping and tourism.
Ickes said the restoration is the only one she’s aware of nationally that is being done by hand. Other efforts have used helicopters to spray herbicides.
“It’s because where we are where we just can’t get in with anything other than people power,” she said.
Ickes said workers want to leave the area better than they found it.
Bankhead agreed and said he has a feeling of accomplishment.
“I’m doing something that I know will last for a while,” he said.