In the 1960s, the infamous Cuyahoga River fire burned the river --- and the city of Cleveland --- into the national consciousness as poster children for the ravages of pollution. A new documentary debuting tonight on many PBS stations explores how a group of environmental watchdogs shepherded the clean-up of Northeast Ohio’s “crooked river”. But, ideastream®'s David C. Barnett reports that there’s still a lot more work to do.
A big pipe sticks out of a river bank, spewing untold gallons of industrial waste into the water. This classic symbol of water pollution was common along the Cuyahoga River of 40, 50 years ago. Then, the river caught on fire in 1969 --- an incident that helped spark the U. S. Environmental Movement, as depicted by historical footage in the new documentary, “The Return of the Cuyahoga”.
SOUND FROM FILM: "Not surprisingly, the Cuyahoga was one of the first rivers to come under EPA scrutiny. Companies that had been dumping for a hundred years, suddenly had to clean-up their act."
The direct dumping of waste water into a river or lake is known as “point source” pollution. Federal regulators and local activists worked to clean-up or shut down point source pipes across the country. But, environmentalist Elaine Marsh says something was still wrong.
ELAINE MARSH: In the beginning of the 1990s, we had corrected 80 to 90% of our point source problems. It was at that time that we began to look at the fact that our rivers and streams had not recovered as we hoped they might.
Biologists then started examining the next suspect on the list of potential polluters --- the ancient sewer systems below older industrial cities like Cleveland and Akron. These underground networks were designed decades ago to carry both sewage and storm water, in separate pipes, away from cities. The only problem is that, when you have a heavy rain, the sewage stream flows into the storm water channel and heads right into the river.
ELAINE MARSH: Billions of gallons of untreated wastewater comes into the Cuyahoga River each year, because of these combined sewer problems.
This is known as “non-point source” pollution because it doesn’t come from one obvious point all the time. In the mid-90s, the US Environmental Protection Agency laid down the law to nearly a thousand US cities, ordering each one to come up with a plan to fix the combined sewer problem. That was a formidable challenge, says Akron’s Public Utilities Manager Mike McGlinchy
MIKE McGLINCHY: You’re talking about sewers that are, in some cases, over 100 years old --- originally designed to last no longer than 50 years.
The replacement cost probably approaches 400 million dollars.
McGlinchy says his counterparts in the Cleveland area --- the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District --- will easily spend over twice that amount. The Cleveland plan is in progress, but the proposal that Akron came up with has yet to be approved by the US EPA. This despite the fact that the Ohio EPA signed off on it three years ago.
MIKE McGLINCHY: That’s part of the frustration we had --- we thought we already had a plan explained, developed, and submitted and approved, but then when it went to the next review level, there was additional information required.
US EPA Section Chief Tom Bramscher says the original plan wasn’t quite strong enough.
TOM BRAMSCHER: We were of the opinion that they could probably do a little more… take it a little further…and upgrade the amount of control they could exercise over a period of time.
As negotiations over the Akron plan continue, McGlinchy says the city has taken at least one step forward, building a 20 million-dollar retention basin that helps divert and treat the sewage overflows during storms.
SOUND: a wild creek flowing in rural Richfield
Standing alongside a creek in rural Summit County, environmentalist Elaine Marsh ponders the concept of a retention basin, and the good work that it does. But, she says, if there was more open, undeveloped land in the region, rain water would get soaked up naturally --- at a lot less expense.
ELAINE MARSH: The retention basin has one function. On the other hand, if you use wetlands and forests, they will also provide filtration… they’ll help take-up pollutants… and they provide other functions, as well. So, a retention basin is very important. But, it’s like a single-tasker. And the wetlands and forests and good development planning, they’re multi-taskers.
For now, the City of Akron will make do with its new retention basin while it waits for the Feds to give them the green light for a costly project aimed at putting the city back in the good graces of Mother Nature.