General, WWW

Burn on, big river, no more: While We’re Waiting

Extinguish the past, ignite the future is the tagline for the 50 year celebration of the last fire being put out on the Cuyahoga River.

Randy Newman’s Burn on from the 1972 album Sail Away has helped keep the image in popular culture1 and Great Lake Brewery’s Burning River Pale Ale continues to remind those local to Northeast Ohio of their past. Both the Cleveland Browns and Cleveland Indians last won a championship when Standard Oil was still dumping the “dregs”2 directly into the Cuyahoga River.

However, there are now two full generations of people in Northeast Ohio who only know the beauty of the region’s natural treasure. Marking the triumph of ending the fires that raged upon the waters intermittently from 1868 through 1969 is well-deserving. Therefore, the Xtinguish Celebration series of events over the course of 2019 is set to commemorate one of the most massive environmental clean-ups in human history rather than focusing on the decrepit state that the crooked river had been allowed to fall into before the blaze.

Perhaps it is even time for Newman to update his song lyrics?

What is Xtinguish Celebration and what organization is planning it?

WFNY discussed the events with the Central Lake Erie Project Manager of Westcreek Conservancy (WCC), Peter Bode.3 An individual who was just named to The New Agency through the Museum of Contemporary Art; Cleveland’s list of local talent pushing the city forward with innovation.

Who are the organizations behind the celebration?
Peter Bode: There are over 350 partner organizations, agencies, municipalities, and businesses that are coming together for this celebration efforts!

Why is this 50 year celebration important?
PB: This is our chance as a region to truly show the world how unique and vibrant our culture is. This marks the 50 year of revival of this storied waterway. It started with individuals that have a passion for the Cuyahoga, and saw its potential. We’re working to truly showcase the fruits of their labor, as well as highlight where we need to go to better our region even more. There is always room for advancement.

Why is this a celebration rather than an anniversary?
PB: Northeast Ohio isn’t celebrating the fire, which would be a traditional “Anniversary”, we’re celebrating every year SINCE 1969 in which we never burned again. This is the story of how you can truly Xtinguish a negative narrative and bring an entire region up from the ashes of the past to intrinsically Igniting the passion for the Cuyahoga River that it deserves; in all that share it.

What makes it important to you personally?
PB: Having dedicated the last decade of my professional career to the Cuyahoga, from being the Cuyahoga River Watershed Coordinator, to now being the Central Lake Erie Project Manager with WCC, this year is my chance to truly highlight what I have been working for.

What are some of the events and parternships you are most excited about?
PB: The Torch Fest! It’s an unprecedented series of festivals along the entire 100 miles of the Cuyahoga River crossing political boundaries, working collaboratively with all park districts, municipalities, businesses, and designating our waterway as a state Water Trail.

Key Xtinguish Celebration events and Crooked Conversations

The Xtinguish Celebration is broken up into two efforts. The Torch Fest and the Crooked River Conversations. Some events (including a couple of big ones) are scheduled and will be announced on the Xtinguish Celebration website at a later date, so be sure to bookmark the page and check it regularly throughout the year.

The West Creek Xtinguish team is also working on iconic large scale art installations and with the sports commission to be visible at several sporting events throughout the region.

Here are some of the events already announced (more on their website).

Torch Fest
The Torch Fest includes the Passing of the Torch along the Cuyahoga River From Headwaters Park, to Kent, to Cuyahoga Falls, to Akron, to Cuyahoga Valley National Park to Cleveland. There are five arts/culture/music festivals at each of the locations as well as “auxiliary” Xtinguish Stages at at least five other festivals regionally from June 19 through 23; installing Commemorative Eternal Flames at each location (including Cleveland), tied to the Native American community for water blessings, have a sculpted torch, tied the effort to being the Celebration of the Designation of the Cuyahoga River Water Trail.

Crooked Couplets
Our river, our residents, our communities have a voice. The Crooked Couplets, in partnership with the WICK Poetry Center, will be working to install a line of poetry on every bridge that crosses the Cuyahoga River from the headwaters to the mouth. These lines will create one contiguous poem and will be tied to a digital tool for easy interaction no matter which bridge you happen to cross. The Cuyahoga River is speaking. Are you listening?

Crooked Cruising
The Lighted Boat Parades of Cleveland have become a unique part of the culture of our river. The 50 year commemoration efforts wouldn’t be complete without numerous boats on the river at dusk on the anniversary date! (June 22). Make your way to the flats, partake in the festivities all of the partners will be putting on, and enjoy the Xtinguish Crooked Cruising Boat Parade at dusk. Boaters, contact Westcreek Conservancy4 to join in.

Crooked Craft Brews
There are 18 breweries within one mile of the Cuyahoga River. That fact is no coincidence! Regionalism is a large focus of the artistic voice of local Brewmasters. We will be highlighting these breweries with an easy to use interactive map, an Xtinguish Series of Beers that will be available in the month of June, and a true focus on the waterway that brought them all to craft their art here.

Crooked River Contrasts
The Cuyahoga River watershed’s premier traveling photography and interactive media exhibit. With 12 locations, WICK Poetry kiosks, and six photographers featured, YEAR-ROUND opportunities, and a basic structure of being “free and open to the public” this conversation is a must to engage.

Crooked Chronicles (Dialogue Series)
Scholars throughout have found inspiration from the story of the Cuyahoga River including journalists, award winning authors, lyricists, and academia. West Creek Conservancy has curated a speaker’s bureau who will be featured throughout the year at multiple locales. Come listen, talk, and converse with our scholars.

Crooked Creations
Everything that we are working towards would be lost if the next generation didn’t have a strong voice in this conversation. Crooked Creations is a youth art showcase that will engage and feature school age students within this commemoration year. With this conversation, we are truly Igniting the Future.

Crooked Conservation
The Cuyahoga River is lucky enough to have five excellent park districts whose jurisdiction encompasses the entirety of the watershed. These include (from headwaters to the mouth) The Geauga Park District, Portage Park District, Summit Metro Parks, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and Cleveland Metroparks. This conversation will highlight some of the assets we have within.

Crooked Characters
The culture of performing arts is well-known to be strong in northeast Ohio. Inspiration comes in many forms in this world. Cleveland Public Theatre derived their voice in this conversation through their re-commissioning of a performance that is a must attend! Fire on the Water, the acclaimed multimedia theatrical event, returns to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1969 burning of the Cuyahoga River in an all-new version. Fire on the Water is a fast-paced series of short plays inspired by this pivotal moment in Cleveland’s history.

Quick history of the Cuyahoga River fire that sparked a national environmental movement

Time Magazine was a chief instigator in the 1969 fires being a prominent piece in the environmental history of the United States of America. Happening just months after a national outcry following an oil spill in Santa Barbara California, the article espoused the gross negligence of industry on the nation’s waterways; highlighted by the billowing pillars of smoke coming off the crooked river.5 Following the article, a great rush of legislation was passed and protection organizations formed.

  • National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)-– a key U.S. law that established national policy for promoting and protecting the environment-– was passed by Congress in December 1969
  • Earth Day established : April 22, 1970
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) : December 19706
  • Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD) took over sewer operations for the city in the early 1970s as part of the cleanup Cuyahoga River fight (more below).
  • Ohio EPA formation : October 23, 1972
  • Clean Water Act – 1972

“The Wastewater Treatment field is the front line of the struggle to protect one of the most valuable resources on the planet: our water.”— Michael Bode, Assistant Superintendent of the Wastewater Department for the City of Elyria

One of the departments that was incorporated into the newly formed Cleveland Regional Sewer District– later renamed Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District(NEORSD)– was the Industrial Waste Department. This section of NEORSD is now called Water Quality and Industrial Surveillance. Under the management of Jim Weber, this group was instrumental in getting to the root causes of the pollution of the Cuyahoga River and eliminating them. Beyond the fire hazard, dumped oil and pollutants are extremely toxic to aquatic life. Aquatic life needs dissolved oxygen to live. One gallon of oil depletes all of the dissolved oxygen out of one million gallons of water. No wonder there was nothing living in the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland back then.

In the late 1980s, Michael Bode7 was working for the Industrial Waste Section of NEORSD. One of their functions was to investigate hazardous material spills and environmental problems. He tells WFNY of on particularly interesting case he was involved in. “In the autumn of 1988, a fish kill was reported in the Cuyahoga River. All of the 18 investigators responded.” Bode remarked. “They found hundreds upon hundreds of dead shad fish. They were found from the mouth up to a railroad bridge several miles up the river, mostly concentrated near that bridge. Many water samples were taken but no pollutant was found.

“They consulted with the Ohio EPA, who sent a biologist from the Northeast District Office in Twinsburg. The biologist was very happy about their findings. He explained that shad migrate up rivers to spawn. Once they spawn, they die. This has been happening in all of the cleaner rivers every year about this time, but this was the first time that it was known to have happened in the Cuyahoga River. THIS MEANS THAT THE RIVER WATER IS NOW CLEAN ENOUGH FOR THEM TO SPAWN! There would have to be plenty of dissolved oxygen and plenty of smaller aquatic life on which their hatchlings can feed for them to do this. The only reason they did not travel further upstream was a log jam at the low railroad bridge that formed a barrier to them. This is a very positive biological indicator that we have made great strides in restoring the Cuyahoga River as a viable aquatic environment.”

  1. further popularized by the great movie Major League []
  2. Among the most direct sources of contaminants came from the oil refineries along the river. There were many one-million gallon plus tanks that held various grades of oil and fuel. When a tank was pumped down to near the bottom, there was a large volume of contaminated oil or oil product that was unusable. It is very ironic that that chief contaminant of the oil was water! The practice up until the early 1970s was to dump these “dregs” directly into the Cuyahoga River. All that was needed was an adequate heat source to create a river fire. []
  3. Full disclosure: Peter Bode is my talented younger brother. []
  4. email: peter@westcreek.org []
  5. Trivia fact: in a bit of fake news, the famous photo Time Magazine attributed in the article was actually of a 1952 Cuyahoga River fire. []
  6. Cleveland among first three cities the EPA demanded action from. []
  7. Michael Bode, father of both the author of this column and the project manager interviewed for it, started working for NEORSD in 1977, where he worked for four years in the Wastewater Plants and earned a Class III Professional Wastewater Operator’s Certification from the OhioEPA. He worked for an additional eight years in the Industrial Waste Section of NEORSD. He also worked for the City of North Royalton Wastewater Department for 18 years where he earned a Class IV Professional Wastewater Operator’s Certification while acting as Superintendent. He is now the Assistant Superintendent of the Wastewater Department for the City of Elyria. He also has been an instructor of wastewater courses for 16 years. All told he has worked in the Wastewater field for 42 years. []