Monday, June 24, 2019

Burning River Re-Visited

As I've written before, I grew up in Cleveland.

Well, technically, Lakewood, the nearest Western suburb. We share the same lake view. As a kid, on the 4th of July, we would gather near the Lakewood Park fence to watch the fireworks, and get a 2-for - we could see both Lakewood's and Cleveland's fireworks from that vantage point. One year, when an accident caused most of the Cleveland fireworks to erupt in just a few minutes, we were able to see it, then enjoy our own fireworks for the rest of the time.

Trips to Cleveland, via the Rapid Transit, the local commuter train, were always fun. We saw the then-busy industrial activity along the route. In the warmer months, we hurriedly closed the windows that had been opened for ventilation once we passed the 25th street station. The smell of the steel mills always included a hefty dose of sulphur. Ohio coal is quite high-sulphur, and gives off that familiar rotten-egg smell you might remember from chemistry class.

One time, when a prior train broken down in the station backed up following trains, my train was stuck for an extended period of time - I think only around 10 minutes. But, that was long enough to cause most of the passengers to face a dreadful situation. It was a terrible choice - keep the windows closed, and sweat, or open them, and gag on the nasty smell.

Lake Erie suffered from that pollution of the Cuyahoga River. The lake regularly churned up dead fish, and the odor wasn't pleasant. The lakeshore had become a dumping ground for trash. Few locals used the lake for swimming - like most of my friends, I preferred the local pools. Those that took the trip to Edgewater or Huntington beaches generally had some underage drinking and partying on their minds.

So, when the river's burning caused the lake to became a flashpoint for environmental activism, I was on board with it all. Above is a picture of the lake before cleanup.

Turns out the story about the burning lake was more nuanced than we had been told - as we are now finding out about a lot of "truths" we'd been fed in those times.

Much of the story was not told at the time - Cleveland got a lot of blame for what wasn't their fault.

The Cuyahoga River - the name means Crooked River - originates in the upmost corner of the state, in Ashtabula county. It travels down to Akron - where a lot of the pollution, including sewage, originates - then snakes up to empty into Lake Erie.

The last part, when Cleveland's industries were active, did add to the pollution. One factor that is little known is that both the river and the lake are quite shallow. For that reason, any pollution has a greater effect than on other lakes in the Great Lakes system. Keep in mind that, as the water moves toward the Atlantic, the aggregate pollution increases - Erie has what it produces, plus some residual from the other lakes to the west.

For contrast, here's a picture of Lake Erie at Cleveland today

And, the Cuyahoga River many years after the fire.



I remember my first experience with the Lake Erie mayfly hatch and subsequent coating of every surface - for miles - with mayflies. Incredible. Personally, I was more amused than disgusted though their dying corpses - having done their duty and laid their eggs - did stink for days.

Imagine every road literally covered in insects that would turn roads slippery. Amused... and encouraged by the fact that the lake was now clean enough to support it.

sykes.1 said...

Mayflies, black flies, dragon flies, et al., are indicators of high quality water. Be happy Cleveland is not in the black fly zone.

Anyway, the federal government gradually took over environmental protection beginning in 1965, over the years spent billions of its own money and mandated cities and industries spend billions more. The result is generally clean air and clean water and safe landfills. It took a generation.

There are remaining issues. In the case of Lake Erie erosion of farmland bordering the Western Basin introduces substantial amount of phosphorus, leading to algal blooms. Agribusiness, however, is politically protected and hard to regulate. Farms escape quite a bit of regulation, even regarding building codes.

However, America is generally a cleaner better place.

pc-not said...

As a child back in the mid 1950's, our family visited my maternal grandparents whose summer home was in North Madison, Ohio. It was a 200 yard walk to the smooth pebbled beach where we would spend hours skipping stones and swimming. I vividly recall asking my dad what all the little black particles were that floated on the water and clung to our skin. He informed me it was the remnants of coal burning steam turbines that powered the many huge ore freighters that traveled the lake.

I'm sure that if OAC was around back then she would attribute that event to man made climate change.

HoundOfDoom said...

Another native Clevelander here, hi there!

Grew up in the 60/70's, ran around the whole town and remember fondly the west side. Cleveland had a not of problems back then, but heart was not one of them. If the weather wasn't so awful - often colder than Alaska in the winter, I'd still be there. Whatever the reason, it's good to see the Cuyahoga cleaned up. And the city looks good from a distance, does she not?

Francis W. Porretto said...

I have friends in several cities along the Great Lakes, and they all agree: Great Lakes weather is the worst. Apparently the population dynamic works this way:

1. Someone founds a heavy industry that needs good shipping.
2. He settles his firm along a Great Lake coast.
3. Hiring begins. People are drawn to the new opportunities.
4. The hirees bitch about the weather.
5. Some look for similar jobs...but they're all along the Great Lakes.
6. Resignation -- to the weather, that is -- ensues.
7. But the shipping is absolutely tops!

HoundOfDoom said...

LOL. Fortunately, my career not in shipping!

Linda Fox said...

There are other factors of importance:

- Zebra mussels - an invasive species - made a huge contribution to the cleanup. They cleaned the bottom of the lake of many f the pollutants. The down side of them is that, due to their hard shells, they have become a dead-end for the food chain. Importing and stocking the lake/rivers with game fish helped with the rest.

- The Lake Effect - most of the newcomers locate on the more upscale and fashionable East Side. Sucks to be them, as the Lake Effect is more evident on the East Side of downtown. We lose the moderating effect of the water heatsink, as Lake Erie, being quite shallow, freezes at some point in the year. We are then at the mercy of the NW winds.

- Last - grow a pair. Dress for the weather (Cleveland people are not that fat, they just wear multiple layers). The cost of living is low, the crime, other than a few hot spots is also low, and you can stand to be outside in summer (unlike the South).