On Monday, the Cleveland Plain Dealer had a picture (above the fold) taken 40 years ago of a man dipping his hand in the Cuyahoga River and having it covered in oil and muck.  In the background is the River that was an oil and waste cesspool, devoid of any life.  Everything was primed for a follow up story in the Plain Dealer today talking about the 40th Anniversary of the famous fire on the Cuyahoga River and show casing Cleveland’s massive environmental achievement in cleaning up the River, then in stepped U.S. EPA….

As discussed in detail in the prior postEnding 40 Years of Cleveland Jokes: A River’s Recovery, the 40 year clean up of the Cuyahoga River has resulted in an unbelievable achievement.  For most of the forty miles upstream of the navigation channel, the River is teeming with life, including:

  • more than 40 species of fish
  • ten times the amount of fish per kilometer

To show this amazing progress, Ohio EPA and the Cuyahoga RAP submitted a formal request supported with reams of data to U.S. EPA’s Great Lakes National Program Office (GLNPO) asking that huge portions of 40 mile stretch be "delisted" or, in other words, taken off the list of the most polluted rivers in the country.  Yesterday, at the Year of the River celebration, local and state politicians, environmental groups and government representatives gathered to receive the good news- U.S. EPA had granted the request.  Only to find out that GLNPO couldn’t see past the bureaucratic red tape and essentially denied the request (GLNPO Letter).  Here was is on the Plain Dealer’s web page today regarding the Year of the River event:

Fantastic job, Northeast Ohio, really. But even after an incredible 40-year turnaround from fire to fish-friendly, still not enough has been done to bring the Cuyahoga River into environmental compliance.

That was essentially the message the U.S. EPA delivered Monday to officials and environmentalists gathered for 40th anniversary of the last fire on the industrial waterway.

GLNPO did not deny the request because the disagreed with the data that showed a return of fish and aquatic life to the River.  In fact, they sent a letter saying they agreed with the data.  Instead, GLNPO said they just didn’t want to delist portions of the River due to internal difficulties in tracking the data.   So all they could send was a letter saying "nice job" and the data shows recovery, but we can’t formally recognize anything.

While this may not seem like a big distinction, the fact is the media was all set to portray the story in an extremely positive light.  I talked with a couple of local reporters and press people covering the event.  Some had glowing coverage written and prepared to be released only to rewrite the stories at the last minute once everyone figured out what U.S. EPA had actually done.  What could have been a event garnering regional if not national attention, ended with local news stories discussing the bureaucratic U.S. EPA. 

Having working on Great Lakes issues for a number of years, I am wise enough to know that progress must be documented when pouring millions into improving the Lakes.  U.S. EPA’s Great Lakes National Program Office should be trumpeting these successes to gain momentum, not deflating the balloon. 

Let’s hope that a lesson can be learned and U.S. EPA will sit down and realize they need to take a fresh look at establishing milestones and formally recognizing achievements.  Otherwise we will have a difficult time ever convincing the Country spending hundreds of millions on the Great Lakes is a wise investment.