On June 23, 1969, a day after the fire on the Cuyahoga River, Mayor Carl Stokes took reporters on a four-stop pollution tour. It would turn out to be the last fire on the river. We retraced the tour 50 years later.
Stokes first stopped at the Big Creek Interceptor south of Cleveland. It had been malfunctioning for weeks by the time of the 1969 fire.
“Interceptor sewers are the highways of sewage,” said Frank Greenland, director of Watershed Programs for the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, on a present-day look at those four sites. “All of the local sewers from communities feed them.”
A Big Creek Interceptor sewer break in the 1960s. [Cleveland State University / Michael Schwartz Library]
The Big Creek Interceptor today, with the Southwest Interceptor behind it. [Elizabeth Miller / ideastream]
In 1969, all of the city’s wastewater plants and pipes were operated by the city of Cleveland. The Big Creek Interceptor was subject to numerous breaks, and “those breaks allowed untreated sewage to get into the Cuyahoga River directly,” Greenland explained. By 1972, the sewer district was created and the agency started bringing the city’s plants and sewers into compliance with regulations from the Clean Water Act.
Mayor Stokes’ press conference June 23, 1969 on the damaged railroad bridge where a spark from a train crossing the Cuyahoga River triggered the fire. [Cleveland State University / Michael Schwartz Library]
Next on the tour, Stokes stopped on the railroad trestle damaged by the river fire.
The railroad is now part of ArcelorMittal. Today, the site is still an industrial one. It’s loud and active, with piles of coal and ore waste stacked up one side of the river.
But unlike 50 years ago, the steel plant and other industry along the river must now adhere to federal regulations, including pre-treating industrial waste before passing it along to the sewer district.
“There's a whole profession, a whole area of expertise that's come up on water quality testing, wastewater management, stormwater management, industrial pre-treatment,” said sewer district CEO Kyle Dreyfuss-Wells. “It’s all new since the river caught fire.”
Even though the river has come a long way in 50 years, Dreyfuss-Wells says the pollution problem is not solved. Non-point source pollution, including stormwater runoff from neighborhoods, and agricultural runoff continue to be problematic, she said.
Pollution from Harshaw Chemical in the 1960s. The company processed and manufactured chemicals in Cleveland from1905 to 1998. [Cleveland State University / Michael Schwartz Library]
On the banks of the Cuyahoga River today, across the river from the site of the former Harshaw Chemical Company at 1000 Harvard Ave. [Elizabeth Miller / ideastream]
The third stop on Stokes' orginal tour is the former site of Harshaw Chemical Company.
“Harshaw Chemical was actually enlisted by the federal government to cook uranium for the Manhattan Project, which was building the atomic bomb,” said Tim Donovan, executive director for Canalway Partners, a group promoting the heritage of the Ohio and Erie Canal. “They used to pour their wastes right into the Cuyahoga River. When you pour uranium byproducts into a river that already has oil, effluence, CSO — toilet stuff — you create a soup of some of the most toxic water in the country."
Harshaw ended operations in 1998. International chemical company BASF purchased the property in 2006 but never used the location for manufacturing, demolishing the buildings in 2015, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Donovan is part of the group cleaning up the property for reuse and he’s starting to see signs of improvement.
“As we walked down here there were four bald eagles circling above us, looking for a nest,” Donovan said.
A sewer outlet in the 1960s [Cleveland State University / Michael Schwartz Library]
The last stop on the 1969 Stokes pollution tour was a sewer pouring waste from Cuyahoga Heights into the river.
Before the sewer district took over in 1972, each community operated its own sewer systems.
“There were a lot of problems between the communities in terms of having the capacity to maintain the infrastructure, and having the proper infrastructure to both deal with residential sewage, and all the issues from industry,” Dreyfuss-Wells said.
Today, that’s under control with the sewer district overseeing 62 communities.
A sewer outlet today, with the Big Creek Interceptor above. [Elizabeth Miller / ideastream]
The river remains an active shipping channel as companies like ArcelorMittal continue to operate under federal environmental guidelines — all while bald eagles and heron nest along the river.
“We’re doing this with an environmental paradigm that is protecting water quality and public health,” Dreyfuss-Wells said.
As part of the week-long Cuyahoga50 events marking the anniversary of the last river fire, Cordell Stokes, son of Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes and Chuck Stokes, son of Rep. Louis Stokes, will be discussing clean water issues at Jacob's Pavillion at Nautica.