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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Cuyahoga River Clean Up

Air Date: Week of

Twenty-six years ago, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio was a burning toxic soup. After a concerted cleanup effort, commerce along the river is picking up and fish are beginning to reappear. Robin Finesmith reports from Living on Earth's Midwest bureau at station WCPN on debate over finalizing the cleanup.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(A man sings: "There's a red moon horizon, on the Cuyahoga River, rolling into Cleveland to the lake. There's an oil barge winding down the Cuyahoga River, rolling into Cleveland to the lake...")

CURWOOD: Back in the 1960s, the Cuyahoga River was so polluted as it passed through Cleveland into Lake Erie, that you could smell it for blocks. In 1969 the city gained international notoriety when the Cuyahoga's toxic brew of chemicals and debris actually caught fire.

(A man sings: "Burn on, big river, burn on. Burn on, big river, burn on...")

CURWOOD: Today, after years of hard work and millions of dollars, you no longer have to roll up your windows when you pass the Cuyahoga. Marinas and riverfront restaurants are enjoying good business, and in parts of the river fish are flourishing again. But there's still one big problem: the constant dredging of the last few mile of the Cuyahoga can sometimes make the water deadly for fish. A Federal deadline to fix the problem is looking, but in a time of tight money and cost-benefit analyses of environmental rules, some folks say the price of that last bit of cleanup is just too high. From Living on Earth's Midwest Bureau at WCPN in Cleveland, Robin Finesmith has our report.

(Running water)

FINESMITH: Ten miles south of Lake Erie, the chocolate-colored water of the Upper Cuyahoga River pushes rhythmically against dead tree branches. Recent rains have scoured the muddy banks and stirred up sand from the bottom, where emerald shiners and white bass are beginning to spawn. Once the fry are large enough, they'll swim downriver toward the lake, but before they get there they must pass through a 5-and-a-half mile stretch of the river that's been permanently altered to serve as a shipping channel for Great Lakes freighters.

(Running water)

FINESMITH: Steve Tuckerman is an environmental scientist with Ohio's EPA, who measures the flow of the Cuyahoga. He says the alterations to the river have permanently changed its ecology.

TUCKERMAN: Because of the deep portion of the navigation channel, the water does not have a chance to go through that area and have some of the normal cleansing pocesses that rivers go through. And we found that whenever the flow drops below a certain level, we start to have water quality problems, specifically dissolved oxygen, low concentrations in the navigation channel.

FINESMITH: Tuckerman says the problem is so severe that on some hot, still days during the summer the water contains no dissolved oxygen at all, killing the fish and everything else living there. Some summers that only happens for a few days, but it can go on for months. Clevelanders have taken great pride in their transformation of the Cuyahoga, since the embarrassing day in 1969 when pollutants and debris in the water actually caught fire. Massive cleanup efforts have revived the river and the nearly dead Lake Erie, and the banks of the Cuyahoga in downtown Cleveland are lined with waterfront restaurants, nightclubs, and docks for excursion boats. The low oxygen level is essentially the only problem left in the Cuyahoga, and that's why some say the city should take pride in what it's achieved and move on to other issues.

MAZOLA: There comes a point in time where government needs to, you know, to simply stop. The job's been done; let's go onto something else. And you know, monitor the situation for what it is. And what it is out here is a navigation channel.

FINESMITH: Joe Mazola is the Executive Director of the Flats Oxbow Association, representing over 200 businesses along the river.

MAZOLA: What people are realizing with the Cuyahoga is that it has been altered by man to serve industry. That was a conscious decision. People come down here and they say oh, the river, but it's really a navigation channel with steel walls 26 feet down on each side, and a river bottom that is consistently dredged. It ceased to be a river a long time ago. To spend big bucks into getting that last little inch out of what it takes to say okay, it has a completely clean bill of health, I think is uncalled for. It's too much.

FINESMITH: Mazola readily acknowledges that cleanup of the Cuyahoga is responsible for the area's economic rebirth. But he also says that further expectations for the river are simply too high. US EPA concedes at least part of Mazola's argument. Recognizing the importance of the navigation channel to area commerce, the EPA has set a lower oxygen standard for this part of the Cuyahoga than for other Ohio rivers: just enough to allow fish to survive on their way to Lake Erie. Assistant District Chief of Ohio's EPA, Bob Wisenski, says the standards can't be relaxed any further.

WISENSKI: We recognize that it is a ship channel. The rule that was passed recognizes that that is a unique water body, and we've given them a very big break already.

FINESMITH: Wisenski notes that fish populations have significantly improved over time. Where there were only 9 species counted 10 years ago, today there are close to 30. But he also says people must realize that the oxygen problem involves more than just the survival of the fish.

WISENSKI: If you're trying to restore an ecosystem, which is what we're trying to do, we're not just trying to meet some magic chemical numbers in a river system. I mean, the goal of the Clean Water Act was to restore the biological integrity of these systems. It's to have a well-balanced aquatic community. You can't have that if you have a major river system without any oxygen in it for a couple days out of the year or a couple months out of the year.

FINESMITH: To ensure that the oxygen level never falls below the EPA's minimum standard, Wisenski says the water must be artificially aerated, with compressors, waterfalls, or other means: a costly process that could run into the tens of millions of dollars. Officials want industrial users of the channel to pay for the aeration system, but business leaders like Joe Mazola wonder if the money could be put to better use.

MAZOLA: We can make that river as clean as you like; it's going to cost. How much do you want to spend? Should we be spending that money in other areas? Should we be spending money on, say, brown fields conditions where we have contaminated soil in an area where a company wants to locate a 100,000 square foot facility and generate 250 jobs which can " it's, these are the kind of things that as a community we have to decide.

FINESMITH: Along with the EPA's Wisenski, Mazola serves on a broad-based local committee that coordinates environmental planning for the river. Many members recognize that it's far easier to quantify immediate economic costs than long-range benefits. But Committee Chair Ted Esborg says the dramatic turnaround the Cuyahoga so far makes a strong case for spending the money on this last step.

ESBORG: We have seen measurable progress, measurable benefits from where we started 25 years ago. I think it's an easier sell here just because of those advances that we've already made.

(Gulls and foghorns)

FINESMITH: The momentum of economic growth that's followed the Cuyahoga's recovery now reaches almost to the Lake Erie shore, where there are plans to build an aquarium on some of the last undeveloped land in downtown Cleveland. With so much civic pride riding on the river's cleanup, no one at this point wants to actively oppose the aeration project. Yet with a Federal
deadline looming, there are still no firm plans to build an aeration system, and no agreement on who would pay for it. And in the political climate of cost-benefit analyses and fewer regulations, those wanting to move ahead with the last stage of the Cuyahoga's cleanup may face a tough fight. For Living on Earth, I'm Robin Finesmith in Cleveland.



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