Environmentalism by David Beach written in 1997 for Encyclopedia of Cleveland History
ENVIRONMENTALISM – The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History
ENVIRONMENTALISM. For thousands of years, American Indians lived in northeast Ohio and scarcely altered the landscape. But with the coming of European settlement and large-scale industrialization in the 1800s, much of the region’s natural resources were exploited and polluted within decades. Ever since, groups of far-sighted citizens have struggled to right the ecological balance. Whether organizing under the banner of the environmental, conservation, consumer, or public health movements, they have sought to rediscover ways to live well–yet live sustainably over the long term–given the natural limits of the region’s land, air, and water.
The CUYAHOGA RIVER has been a focal point. When Connecticut settlers first arrived 200 years ago, they viewed the estuary of the river either as a miasmic, disease-ridden swamp or as a green valley full of life. Those with the latter opinion left accounts describing clear waters, bountiful fish spawning grounds, rich bottom lands, and abundant wildlife. But those who saw wetlands as an obstacle to progress quickly prevailed. They set about straightening and deepening the river to create a port and filling wetlands to develop sites for warehouses and factories. The river became an open sewer running through the heart of the city, and by the 1870s water pollution threatened the city’s drinking water supply. Instead of curbing the pollution, however, the preferred solution was to move the water intakes farther out into Lake Erie.
The habit of avoiding environmental problems extended to air pollution. In the 1850s reformers recognized that industrial furnaces were creating a health hazard and passed legislation to control the problem. But opposition to regulation was fierce. For example, in 1860 a Cuyahoga County Grand Jury indicted the Rail Rd. Iron Mill Co. because the smoke from its chimneys was a nuisance. The CLEVELAND LEADER condemned the action, saying that “the idea of striking a blow at the industry and prosperity of the infant iron manufacturers of Cleveland by indicting the most extensive and important of them all as a nuisance, is an act that should and will be reprobated by the whole community.”
In the early 1900s the smoke nuisance problem was studied by a number of civic groups without much impact. Then in 1926 the WOMEN’S CITY CLUB took up the issue and championed the creation of a city Division of Smoke Inspection. Through public education and enforcement, the division reduced air pollution for a few years–until the Depression hit and regulations on factories became taboo once more. By 1941 the annual “soot-fall” in Cleveland was estimated to be 90 pounds per capita. Among those hardest hit were residents of the Broadway neighborhood downwind of the steel mills. The neighborhood’s Forest City Park Civic Assn. and Neighborhood Environmental Coalition fought the steel companies in court, often with the help of the LEGAL AID SOCIETY OF CLEVELAND of Cleveland. The Air Conservation Committee of the American Lung Assn. of Northern Ohio was an important air pollution watchdog in later years.
One of the most significant conservation triumphs in Greater Cleveland in the 20th century was the formation of the Cleveland Metroparks (see CLEVELAND METROPARKS and PARKS) in 1917. Under the direction of WILLIAM STINCHCOMB†, the Metroparks not only provided healthful recreation for urban residents but protected important natural areas along the Rocky River, Chagrin River, and Tinkers Creek. The constant public support for the Metroparks over more than 75 years proves that citizens view green space as a wise civic investment. Another major conservation achievement came in 1974 with the creation of the CUYAHOGA VALLEY NATIONAL RECREATION AREA, which encompasses 33,000 acres between Cleveland and Akron. In the 1990s a number of organizations, including Ohio Canal Corridor and the Ohio & Erie Canal Corridor Coalition, advocated extending the reach of the CVNRA by creating a National Heritage Corridor along the canal from Cleveland to Zoar. Throughout the region, local park districts and land trusts are now creating recreational corridors on a smaller scale by converting abandoned railroad lines to biking/hiking trails. In one prominent case, a nature center was created out of a fight to stop a highway–the long battle in the 1960s to stop the proposed Clark Freeway from tearing through the SHAKER LAKES. By the 1990s the region’s Interstate highway network was essentially complete, but ad hoc groups of citizens were still fighting new interchanges and the widening of roads that would bring traffic and sprawling development to their communities. EcoCity Cleveland, a nonprofit journal, analyzed the impacts of urban sprawl and promoted links between activists in the city and country.
A less well known example of land preservation is the Natural Areas Program of the CLEVELAND MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY. Beginning in 1956, the museum has acquired a system of nature preserves that represent some of the best remaining examples of biological diversity in northeast Ohio. For many years institutions such as park districts and the Museum of Natural History have helped maintain a conservation ethic in the region. They have been accompanied by many citizens’ groups, such as the local Audubon Society chapters and the Burrough’s Nature Club in Lake County, as well as governmental bodies such as Soil and Water Conservation Districts and the Three Rivers Watershed District, which in the 1960s and 1970s promoted watershed-based planning in the Rocky, Cuyahoga, and Chagrin river drainage basins. The conservation ethic helped lay a foundation for the modern environmental movement.
The increased production and use of persistent toxic chemicals after World War, II raised environmental concerns even more serious than the conventional smoke and sewage pollution of earlier years. As Rachel Carson described in Silent Spring in 1962, chemicals such as DDT bioaccumulate in the food chain and cause reproductive and developmental health effects. Local members of the LEAGUE OF WOMEN VOTERS (LWV) OF CLEVELAND helped form the league’s Lake Erie Basin Committee in 1963 to educate the public about such threats. Over the next 30 years the committee would also address the lake’s phosphorous problem, help ban oil and gas drilling in the lake and speak out on other water quality and coastal management issues.
On 22 June 1969, the long-suffering Cuyahoga River caught fire. It was not the first time the river had burned, nor was it the only river in the nation with flaming oil slicks, but the incident captured the public imagination. Thus, more than a century after the river’s pollution was first noted it became an international symbol of environmental degradation. Along with the “dying” Lake Erie, the river provided a rallying point for citizen indignation and contributed to a sense of environmental crisis. This culminated in the first Earth Day events in April 1970. In Greater Cleveland, Earth Day included a week of events billed as “Crisis in the Environment Week.” The symbol of the week’s activities was a drooping flower. One headline in the CLEVELAND PRESS remarked: “Hippies and Housewives Unite to Protest What Man is Doing to Earth.” Greater Cleveland had one of the largest Earth Day turnouts in the nation. An estimated 500,000 elementary, junior high, high school and college students took part in campus teach-ins, litter cleanups, tree planting events and other special activities at schools throughout the area. More than 1,000 CLEVELAND STATE UNIVERSITY students and faculty staged a “death march” from the campus to the banks of the Cuyahoga River. A young man dressed as MOSES CLEAVELAND† rowed ashore to meet the marchers but soon turned away in disgust because of the filth he found. Activities also included a major conference on the environment sponsored by the Cleveland Engineering Society, as well as speeches by consumer activist Ralph Nader and community organizer Saul Alinsky.
One way citizens reacted to the wastefulness of consumer society was to organize recycling programs in their communities. In the mid-1970s, relatively high prices for aluminum and newspapers made recycling drives popular fundraisers. Following the belief that solid waste contains “urban ore” that can be reprocessed by local industries, the Cleveland Recycling Center was established in Cleveland’s St. Clair-Superior neighborhood to provide jobs for local residents. The Greater Cleveland Ecology Assn. composted yard wastes from a number of cities and sold the humus to gardeners and landscapers. One of the area’s pioneering curbside recycling programs was organized in CLEVELAND HEIGHTS by Heights Citizens for Recycling. Ultimately, fluctuating prices for recyclables and relatively low tipping fees at local landfills made it difficult for such recycling groups to convince city councils to adopt curbside programs. Solid waste recycling targets set by the state, however, helped persuade most municipalities to adopt curbside programs by the early 1990s. To promote materials recycling and reuse, as well as reduce litter, environmentalists in Ohio have sought to require deposits on bottles and cans. In 1979 the Ohio Alliance for Returnables got a bottle bill on the ballot, but it lost by a wide margin in the face of a well-financed campaign by industry.
Among the most influential of the local environmental organizations arising shortly after Earth Day 1970 was the Northeast Ohio Group of the Sierra Club. It was founded in 1970 by Albert McClelland, and early activists included Eugene Perrin, Paul Dyment, Paul Swenson, Jerome Kalur, Irene Horner, Ed Fritz, Emeline Clawson, Tom Jenkins, and Ellen Knox. By the mid-1980s the Northeast Ohio Group grew to more than 5,000 members who were active on 15 conservation issue committees, such as energy, nuclear power, pesticides and solid waste. Also active in the early 1970s was the Ohio Public Interest Action Group, a Ralph Nader-related organization based in Cleveland Hts. It joined the Sierra Club and other groups to fight the scheme for the CLEVELAND JETPORT (LAKE ERIE INTERNATIONAL JETPORT), promote state strip-mining reforms and protest the building of the Richfield Coliseum.
Concern for Lake Erie included activism to improve public access to Cleveland’s long-neglected waterfront. The Cleveland Waterfront Coalition, founded in 1981 by Helen Horan and Emeline Clawson, worked to establish a park on Pier 34, the area which later became NORTH COAST HARBOR. Clawson and Sierra Club members such as Alan Kuper also worked to get the city’s ill-maintained lakefront parks to be taken over by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Under the leadership of Edith Chase, the Ohio Coastal Resource Management Project has worked since 1982 to prod the state to complete a coastal management plan for the Lake Erie shoreline.
Nuclear power plants along the Lake Erie shore became a major issue for environmentalists in the 1970s. Activists Evelyn Stebbins and Genevieve Cook and a variety of grassroots groups–the Sierra Club, Citizens for Clean Air and Water, North Shore Alert, Western Reserve Alliance, Save Our State, and Ohio Citizens for Responsible Energy–protested the siting and licensing of the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant on a marsh near Port Clinton and the Perry plant on an earthquake fault 35 miles east of Cleveland. In addition to voicing concerns about the risk of nuclear facilities next to the drinking water source for millions of people, activists predicted correctly that the costly plants would saddle consumers in the region with higher electric rates than would programs, emphasizing energy conservation, efficiency, and renewable energy. The nuclear plants also brought the problem of how to dispose of large volumes of radioactive wastes. In the 1980s, activists such as Arnold Gleisser criticized studies on the feasibility of storing radioactive waste in salt formations, fearing that the salt mines beneath Lake Erie might become a waste dump. In 1995 environmental groups around the state are fighting the siting of a “low-level” radioactive waste facility in Ohio.
To provide communities, workers, and emergency crews information on hazardous chemicals in workplaces, the Ohio Public Interest Campaign (now Ohio Citizen Action) joined with the Council on Hazardous Materials (now Environmental Health Watch), firefighters, the United Auto Workers, and oil, chemical, and atomic workers to get a hazardous materials right-to-know law passed by Cleveland City Council in 1985. National right-to-know provisions, such as the Toxic Release Inventory, gave local activists valuable information on industry’s toxic chemical releases into the environment. In 1992 Ohio Citizen Action spearheaded a state ballot issue to require more extensive product labeling of health-threatening chemicals. As in previous environmental referenda campaigns in Ohio, however, environmentalists were outspent by business by a wide margin and were defeated.
Since the 1980s, many citizens in the region have become environmental activists through grassroots struggles to stop incinerators. Residents of Cleveland’s Broadway and Kinsman neighborhoods joined suburban environmentalists to prevent operation of the GSX hazardous waste incinerator. A coalition of neighborhood and environmental groups stopped MT. SINAI MEDICAL CENTER from installing a medical and solid waste incinerator near the HOUGH neighborhood. And the unsuccessful campaign to stop a hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, OH, drew national attention.
Much exposure to toxic chemicals occurs around the home. Led by Judy Fink and Kim Hill of the Sierra Club, local activists worked to get public notification of lawn chemical applications and to reduce the use of pesticides in schools and other public buildings. Since 1984 Environmental Health Watch has been a community clearinghouse for information on toxic hazards in the home. Teaming up with the Housing Resource Center in Cleveland, EHW co-sponsored national “Healthy House” conferences to promote less toxic building design and materials. The organization is now working with the City of Cleveland to reduce lead poisoning, which is the number one public health threat to children in older housing. In addition, the FOOD CO-OP has educated thousands about the value of pesticide-free, organic food.
In 1990 about 40,000 Greater Clevelanders commemorated the 20th anniversary of Earth Day by attending the EarthFest celebration at the CLEVELAND METROPARKS ZOO. The event, has been organized annually since then by the Earth Day Coalition of Northeast Ohio. In some respects the environmentalists attending these latter Earth Days face an even more complex environmental situation than those attending 20 years before. On the one hand, it’s possible for the public to be lulled by visible progress. While Ohio still ranks high in toxic releases, the billions of dollars invested in pollution control by local industries, municipalities and the NORTHEAST OHIO REGIONAL SEWER DISTRICT since the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act of the early 1970s have dramatically reduced some of the most obvious pollution problems. The Cuyahoga River, for instance, is now choked with pleasure boats rather than oil slicks, and Lake Erie has come back from the dead and has a thriving sport fishery.
On the other hand, less obvious–but often more insidious–environmental problems remain. They are often problems that don’t come from a specific “point source” like a smokestack, but come from countless, diffuse “nonpoint sources.” These include runoff from urban streets and farm fields, or the general burning of fossil fuels that contributes to global warming. Or they are lingering problems created years ago, such as contaminated sediments at the bottom of rivers and lakes or the thousands of abandoned industrial and commercial sites contaminated by previous uses. Or they are caused by urban sprawl, which destroys green space and makes people dependent on automobiles. Or the problems involve invisible chemicals, such as dioxin and PCBs, which can impair reproductive and developmental health in concentrations that can scarcely be measured.
Tackling such problems involves more than fighting a permit application, more than pointing a finger at one company. It may involve watershed management programs involving numerous municipalities and land owners, regional land use planning to reduce sprawl, or the phase-out of a whole class of industrial chemicals, such as those based on chlorine, the common element in many persistent toxins. To make headway, environmentalists are increasingly finding themselves working on collaborative projects with their traditional corporate adversaries. One example is the Cuyahoga River Remedial Action Plan, which since 1987 has enlisted a variety of stakeholders to develop a comprehensive plan to clean up the river and nearby portion of Lake Erie. Others include the Cuyahoga County Brownfields Working Group, which in 1994 brought together diverse interests to find ways to speed the cleanup and redevelopment of contaminated urban land, and the Regional Environmental Priorities Project sponsored by the Center for the Environment at CASE WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY. Such collaborations seek solutions based on consensus rather than conflict, but they make environmentalists wary of compromise and delay.
In the 1990s, at a time when everyone likes to be called an “environmentalist” and “natural” is a marketing gimmick used to, sell more wasteful consumer products, environmental activists must continually re-emphasize what it will take to achieve a sustainable society. They know that, ultimately, it will take more than recycling bottles and placing pollution controls on smokestacks. As groups like the Northeast Ohio Greens insist, it will require fundamental changes–economic changes so that long-term environmental impacts are factored into the price of goods and services, political changes to revive democracy at the grassroots, and changes in values about what humans really need to live full and productive lives together on a small planet.