Cleveland's Place in the Earth Day Universe

Earth Day. You're going to hear about it, you may participate in a beach clean-up or any number of infinite ways to recognize and celebrate a time when concerns about environmental pollution led to a nationwide grassroots response in 1970.

Two 1969 events catalyzed public opinion that the time had finally arrived to take action on environmental degradation: The first was an oil rig blowout 6 miles off the shore of California that spilled 100,000 barrels of oil into the Pacific Ocean and beaches of Santa Barbara. The second was a relatively minor fire on the Cuyahoga River that received national attention (along with an erroneous photo) when Time Magazine ran a short but devastating piece.

Santa Barbara Oil Spill, 1969

Cuyahoga River Fire, 1969

The Santa Barbara oil rig blowout was a one-time offense but the Cuyahoga River fire (one of 13 separate fires stringing back to 1868) was an overnight sensation that was years in the making. Cleveland's rise as a manufacturing powerhouse and the use of the Cuyahoga River as a pipeline for the disposal of untreated industrial waste led to the ecological ruin that served as the poster child for the nascent environmental movement.

But the city of Cleveland was a step ahead of the nation in taking action to stem pollution's rising tide. 8 months BEFORE the 1969 fire Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes and his city utility director Ben Stefanski convinced Cleveland voters to approve a $100 million bond to improve the city's sewer system. This was a substantial local commitment compared to the $180 million the federal government was spending on similar projects for the entire country. Cleveland also had to battle state of Ohio laws that had few teeth to enforce water pollution standards and violations.  

Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes speaks to media as his utility director Ben Stefanski look on.

Bill Roberts Cleveland Press Cartoon (1964)

After Cleveland took action, the first Earth Day took place on April 22, 1970, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created later that same year followed by the Clean Air Act (1970) and the Clean Water Act (1972). The moral of the story is the city of Cleveland and its citizens took the lead on pollution control efforts ahead of state or federal regulation.

Since then it's been a long, winding journey for the Cuyahoga River, but 47 years after the last fire, Cleveland's revitalized waterfront is home to new restaurants, bars, housing, recreational outlets and businesses. Memories of the 1969 blaze still linger for some, but when visitors take a picture or video of the Cuyahoga River's theater of the waterfront and post it to their favorite social network, they are helping to reframe public perception of Cleveland as a dynamic city, a fun tourism destination and a magnet for millennials.

The Cuyahoga River in 1966

The Cuyahoga River in 2015

PhotO courtesy of ODOT Innerbelt

The next time you hear someone suggest an either/or choice between enforcing pollution controls or providing for a business-friendly environment, ask yourself whether the influx of investment (or as we like to call it, entrepreneurs making bets on Cleveland's success) so people can eat, drink, work, live and play along the waterfront would be happening if the Cuyahoga River was still being treated like a sewer pipe for industry. Environmentally friendly regulation is good for business, good for the economy, and good for a region's quality of life. Happy Earth Day everybody!

Rowers from St. Joseph Academy passing the Flats East Bank development

A Cleveland Metroparks kayak paddle

The Sam Laud making it's way through the Cuyahoga River Flats to make an iron ore delivery to ArcelorMittal Steel.

If there's still any doubt on the value of having a clean river in an urban environment, spend a minute with this video zen!