When the Cuyahoga River burned in 1969, it didn’t have to be the last time. So why was it?
The river fire of 53 years ago wasn’t the first. The Cuyahoga burned at least 13 times in its history, and river fires were so common across an industrializing country into the 1950s that the 1969 fire didn’t even make the front page of the Cleveland news.
But to understand the significance of the Regional Sewer District’s creation in 1972 and the environmental advancements made possible in the 50 years since, we can look at the people, programs, and progress that truly sparked a change that ignited the movement.
In 1969, Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes, the first Black mayor of a major city when elected in 1967, was a long-time advocate for environmental responsibility. He criticized the Federal government for not taking appropriate regulatory action and vowed to fight for a cleaner river for the residents of Cleveland.
“That was the greatness of Carl Stokes,” former Cleveland Utilities Director Ben Stefanski II recalled in 2010. “He could see the issue and understand how it affected people, and then use that issue in a positive way to make change.”
The story itself was compelling, but so was who covered it. Betty Klaric, one of the first journalists to be named a full-time environmental reporter for a major daily newspaper in the mid-1960s, was the Cleveland Press reporter who followed Stokes on a Cuyahoga River pollution tour. Her coverage received national attention that led to coverage in TIME magazine in 1969.
“While we didn’t pay much attention to that [particular fire], because it wasn’t that unusual,” Klaric recalled in 2007, “the national media began to pay attention. Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River became the symbol nationally of what was wrong with the environment.”
Things were changing. Soon after, the Environmental Protection Agency and what would eventually become the Clean Water Act emerged from the smoke and affect the course of environmental history.
The creation of the Sewer District in 1972 obviously was not the first time the region had wastewater treatment or industrial oversight. The City of Cleveland owned and operated 3 treatment plants since the early 1920s, and over the years saw the system struggle under the stress of suburban expansion. A dispute over the cost for improvements and the responsibility of city versus suburban customers led to a Cuyahoga Common Pleas Court lawsuit that introduced our history to the name Judge George J. McMonagle.
“McMonagle got hold of [the case] and really pushed it along,” said former Executive Director of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District Erwin Odeal.
The judge was considered a visionary, recognizing that a regional district, referring to Chapter 6119 of the Ohio Revised Code, would be most effective addressing both issues of shared cost and responsibility for wastewater services in Northeast Ohio. And on June 15, 1972, the Cleveland Regional Sewer District was formed.
In this same year, the US law known as the Clean Water Act established the basic structure for regulating pollutant discharges into the waters of the United States, and gave EPA the authority to implement pollution control programs such as setting wastewater standards for industry.
The Cuyahoga’s story has as many meanders as the river itself. But the people and passions leading up to 1972 enabled her to have a sustainable future.
The next 5o years would see enhancements, expansion, collaboration, and innovation that would improve the lives of a million Northeast Ohioans for generations to come. We’re proud to keep those stories, and our crooked river, flowing today.