Celebrating the Comeback of the Burning River, 1969-2019

on that particular bridge would have
fire was there’s the rail cars calling gold and steal from the J&L plant over
to the rolling mill but no Dale Stan’s sparking 92 oil and a debris at the base
of the bridge the noise was deafening the air was choking and a river just
depending on what day you were there there was oil there was pickle liquor it
was flowing orange red and just all it was it was almost an alien environment
its own unique smell and a big cleanup tool for her well snow was a squeegee
shove it all off into the river but remember all of this was before the
federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1970 and 1972 so all of that was quite
legal what was being done to make a mess in a river
Time magazine captured an image and that really led people to say no more we need
to do something about this so it was just getting enough political will to
address this and and really start with the industries that had turned their
back on the river that was it was pretty shocking I said you know I was hired by
the agency to clean this river up and I remember having some thoughts about it
it might be hopeless you know there were days or I really wonder whether we’re
gonna be able to make any progress at all down in an area like that there was a group put together called
the oil study group and was made up of wala people that handle the oil on the
river everybody became let’s say good corporate citizens and did their part
that trying to study this thing and yeah we could clean it up when we first sat down some of the very
first rap meetings that we had it stands for remedial action plan and this came
out of the International Joint Commission which was a commission set up
between the United States and Canada initially to deal with border disputes
but water quality became such an issue in the late 60s and early 70s they took
on the role of water quality we had members from the Sierra Club
we had LTV steel we had Northeast Ohio regional Sewer District I mean there
were a lot of different perspectives on what they want and what they felt was
needed for the river people had their shields up and people were guarded
during the first few meetings but is that they went on I noticed people
started you know that a lot went on getting coffee in between the breaks and
people talking on the side and hey this guy’s not so bad he’s not really the
enemy getting one another to listen to one another and better understand that
that that’s a real important part of that process we had a clean water act
the first version of the Clean Water Act and EPA was formed both nationally at
the state level coincidentally the Northeast higher regional Sewer District
then the Cleveland regional Sewer District was formed a tackle broad
issues when rivers are burning things are bad there wasn’t an understanding of what we
could do to make it better we did not have any of the technologies that we had
now and that’s one of the important things about the cleanup of the river is
that we had to develop an education system where we actually trained
technicians on what we had to do research in terms of what to find out
what could be done and these processes got better over time so we had to invent
a whole new set of clean water infrastructure in order to clean up the
river a lot of the improvement I think can be attributed to a few things
obviously a lot of investment by the sewer district five billion dollars more
than five billion since we were formed other investments by other communities
city of Akron and surrounding communities but there’s been an
investment environmental investment to help clean up things and make things
better in terms of water quality industrial discharges became regulated
under the Clean Water Act we play a role we are kind of the EPA for the what we
call a pretreatment programme industries need to clean up their waste streams
before they discharge to us and that’s really helped as well so there’s been
sustained investment over time I think so often in the environmental community
you know it’s kind of a bummer right so folks see mistakes and we talk about
climate change and people feel like there’s a lack of progress but when you
come to Cleveland and you go to the Cuyahoga River and you walk along the
east bank of the flats you can see it you can smell it and it’s a huge
improvement you’re not going to see stuff like the flats on a river that’s
full of oil so that really stimulated some of the economic things and there’s
another uptick going on right now and I think that’s great the Metro Parks has
taken control of certain areas got a restaurant on the river the thing that
amazed me about Cleveland is no restaurants on the lakefront why is that
because things were bad but we’re starting to see that we’ve got kayakers
on the river you know st. ignatius and other high school teams are sculling on
the river it’s all good there’s a lot of boating interests particularly sport
fishing you know going on so there’s all of these are quality of life
enhancements I think the biggest victory is that we have fish in the river and we
have people utilizing the river we have freighters going up and down there’s
more and more people trying to access the river but not just the human use but
we do have that good enough health to have teams of fish that are swimming up
and down the river people partying at the East Bank or
going to a concert in the flats shiny new colorful fun exciting it’s not just
the bridges that have color the valley now is colorful and that’s not something
you find in a dirty old industrial valley it’s definitely a model for
environmental protection my colleagues at Ohio environmental protection agency
talked about how they’re visited by teams of people from all over the world
because they had heard about that that last burning of the river and how it
started the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Water Act so it’s a
model as far as getting those regulations and and beginning to clean
up the water as people from both sides of the river come down to know it they
start to love it that is what we need going forward with regards to the future
and and what’s coming down the pike for the Cuyahoga River one of our kind of
near-term goals is the removal of the gorge Dam in Cuyahoga Falls that would
return the river to naturally flowing stream between Akron and the
mouths at Lake Erie and here in Cleveland so on a Cuyahoga River about
halfway up ish there’s a dam it was originally built in the early 1900’s as
a hydro plant so It never worked out as a functioning hydro plant but the
structure is still there and it blocks River movement so it disturbs the system
and pounds water taking it out which would be an awesome thing requires
partnerships above and beyond just Ohio EPA and community has to support it our
fish don’t jump they’re not getting up past the gorge dam because they don’t
crawl they don’t jump they don’t fly they don’t crawl so we have to remove
the barriers and dams are barriers to fish population that’s life in a system
so restoration is life if we make it possible the gorge dam is a hunk of
concrete sitting in the middle of the river creating probably the largest
unresolved water quality issue on the Cuyahoga River there is a dam pool
behind it about a mile and a half long and we do not meet water quality
standards in that dam pool so the opportunity here is to restore a mile
and a half of water quality this two-mile section of the Cuyahoga River
the river falls over 200 feet so we have this spectacularly beautiful geography
which provides an opportunity for tourism even beyond what we experience
now it provides an opportunity for expert paddlers what we’ve done in the
recent past is we had two smaller dams that
moved and what that did is that opened up about a half mile of challenging
whitewater and behind the Sheraton in our downtown we have class five Rapids
but now there’s a larger portion for the kayakers to enjoy
however when those dams came down we had to install signs with the guidance of
our law department says extreme danger get out here that’s where those kayakers
get in for their competitive races well if the class 5 Rapids the the large dam
the Edison Dam at the old power plant is still there the kayakers tell me if that
comes down there will be two and a half miles of challenging whitewater in
Cuyahoga Falls and there’s nothing even close to that east of the Mississippi so
we’ll be building more restaurants and hotels just for that reason what
happened on a Cuyahoga River has benefited the entire world just because
it put this hay water quality can get so bad at that time with the news and what
what ended up happening was yet this was the image and we probably at some point
should have been saying hey this isn’t right we looked at the Cuyahoga River
last year as part of what we call an assessment at EPA and most of the main
flowing part of the river meet the standards we have in Ohio I think it
shows how far we’ve come and and luckily so because that could not continue the
way it was it was catastrophic to the waterway to health to the pollution to
dangerous situations obviously with a lot of the oil and things that were
floating so the fact that that’s what finally it took is something
catastrophic to change our mindset and we have and even to today we’re still
pushing forward to preserve nature as as it was intended I embrace the burning
river I know what it meant when it burned we have taken that burning river
and turned it into a Phoenix where we are right now is kind of a Zenith
and so it’s very important for us to continue these values so that the zenith
continues to improve you

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