As Riverfront Development Ramps Up, Cuyahoga Still Remains an EPA 'Area Of Concern'

"The non-commercial uses are rising," a Port official said about the river's clean-up crew

click to enlarge Flotsam, a sister vessel to Jetsam, is one half of the clean-up crew for the Port Authority of Cleveland. The team is responsible for cleaning up some 200,000 pounds of waste and debris found in the Cuyahoga River annually. - Port Authority
Port Authority
Flotsam, a sister vessel to Jetsam, is one half of the clean-up crew for the Port Authority of Cleveland. The team is responsible for cleaning up some 200,000 pounds of waste and debris found in the Cuyahoga River annually.

The slate of ongoing and proposed projects continues to grow.

There's The Pine on Ox Bow Bend, Irishtown Bend Park across to the east. There's the Thunderbird apartment complex on Scranton. Rico Pietro's conceptual "Flats South" idea to the east of that, shortly before the Cuyahoga River churns southward into the Industrial Valley and the iconic Cleveland Cliffs steel plant.

And, of course, there's Bedrock's long-term megaproject: nearly 3,000 units in futuristic high rises lining the northern banks complete with a boardwalk that would give Chicago a run for its money.

If the peninsulas of Cleveland's former industrial river valley are to segue into residential neighborhoods, then it's undeniable that the Cuyahoga River, once a shorthand for environmental disaster in 1970s, wil be marketed by developers as a proverbial backyard.

But what if the river's not ready for its closeup?

Since the late 1980s, nearly 45 miles of the Cuyahoga—from its Lake Erie mouth to southern tip of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park—have been designated as an Area of Concern by the Environmental Protection Agency. Moreover, according to the Port Authority, some 200,000 pounds of plastic bottles, cups, logs, sticks and straws float and mingle with the phalanxes of boats and kayaks that are rebounding to pre-pandemic numbers on the water.

"The cleaner the river is, the more desirable it is for people who want to be around it, to use it, to live around it, to play around it, to be in it, to boat it, and frankly, to fish in it," Jade Davis, the Port Authority's Senior Vice President Energy, Maritime and Economic Development told Scene. "The better it is, the more that land and developments are going to be worked around it."

The vast bulk of river maintenance along the six-mile shipping line rests in the combined labor of the Flotsam and Jetsam, the two cleanup vessels responsible for tidying up the Cuyahoga—and keeping logs and pop bottles away—have been chugging away since they were commissioned in 2012. (They replaced the Putzfrau, the "Cleaning Lady," that was the poster child of Cuyahoga crew in the 1970s.)

Though Davis wouldn't specify by how much, the Port director said that Flotsam and Jetsam's budget has increased in the past few years, mostly thanks to climate-focused grants, like the $8 million one from NOACA in 2016.

Such an increase, Davis added, is not just to facilitate smoother sailing for shipping freighters.

"The non-commercial uses are rising," he said. "We want to again make it more aesthetically pleasing, especially with the amount of people who are now living and interacting with the river."

Yet, the river's maintainence is more than just surface level blemishes.

State, regional and federal attention has been paid to the river since it being designated an area of concern.

Even to this day, polychlorinated biphenyls—PCBs for short—are still settled deep within the Cuyahoga's sediment, 23 to 27 feet below its surface. The bulk of the river's restoration since the 1980s has been a concerted effort to battle the lingering impact of PCBs, heavy metals and pesticides that form fish tumors and poison sandy sediment that would otherwise be healthy to dredge. (The river's dredged annually by the Port Authority and the Army Corps of Engineers.)

Jennifer Grieser, the Metroparks' Director of Natural Resources, said that although the Cuyahoga is a lot friendlier to kayakers and residents than it was 30, 40 years ago, there could still be a decade before it is delisted by the EPA. As of today, six out of the 10 main beneficial use impairments—indicators of progress—still need work.

Some of those impairments? Untreated sewer outflow. Fish with eroded fins. (The river can host up to 70 species.) Potential E. coli contamination due to said sewer outflows, or flooding due to bad rainfall.

"When we delist the river, we are not claiming it's going to be this exceptional, ecological place," Greiser said. "But our hope is even once we're delisted, people will still care about the river, and we'll still have stewards of the river dedicated to continue to make progress."

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Mark Oprea

Mark Oprea is a staff writer at Scene. For the past seven years, he's covered Cleveland as a freelance journalist, and has contributed to TIME, NPR, the Pacific Standard and the Cleveland Magazine. He's the winner of two Press Club awards.
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