The ‘cleansing fire’ that created a national park

When Ohio’s polluted Cuyahoga River caught fire for the 13th time on June 22, 1969, it catapulted Cleveland to the center of America’s newly-emerging environmental movement, helping to create the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and The Clean Water Act of 1972.

Frank Samsel, an 89-year-old Cleveland native who designed and operated a boat in the 1970s called the Putzfrau (German for “cleaning lady”) which sucked up chemicals and scooping assorted solid debris from the Cuyahoga, said that in the summer of 1969, the river “smelled like a septic tank,” bubbling and producing methane.

Then a spark from a train crossing a bridge fell into the river, causing smoke and flames that reached as high as a five-storey building, causing about $50,000 in damage to two railroad bridges. It wasn’t the worst fire on the river, which French historian Alexis de Tocqueville had described as pristine in 1838 – but it was the last.

A group of kayakers on the Cuyahoga River in summer. NPS / D.J. Reiser

“It would turn out to be a cleansing fire, one that became a potent symbol for the nascent environmental movement,” National Geographic said in 2019 as Cleveland celebrated the changes that had occurred within the past 50 years. “Within a few years the U.S. had enacted laws that would have a dramatic impact on the environment, including the Cuyahoga and other rivers.” 

In March 2019, the Ohio EPA declared that fish in the river were safe to eat, though sparingly due to persisting mercury and PCBs in sediments and said about 70 species of fish now thrived in the river. It was a dramatic change from 1969, as Jane Goodman, executive director of the nonprofit Cuyahoga River Restoration, pointed out. “People can see fish leaping out of the water here in the industrial shipping channel. We had become the poster river for everything that could go wrong with a river. Now we’re a poster river for everything that can go right. It’s the Lazarus river—it came back from death.”

There has been a lot of that Lazarus energy around the Cuyahoga River. Not far from the cities of Cleveland and Akron is the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, a refuge for native plants and wildlife, that includes two areas that once were auto scrap yards.

In the 1960s, citizens and public officials worried that commercial and residential development was threatening the scenic Cuyahoga River Valley, leading the US Congress to create the 33,000-acre Cuyahoga National Recreation Area in 1974. The National Park Service (NPS) began acquiring private land within the area, and working out cooperative agreements with existing developments. Eventually, confusion about the meaning of “recreation area” led to full national park status in 2000.

In 1984, Sierra Club members worked with the NPS to clear out an auto scrapyard, creating the popular Beaver Marsh zone in the park’s southern half. Sierra Club member Peg Bobel remembers that cleanup. “The visible pollution in the river was just heartbreaking. The hands-on, grassroots environmental movement and the national laws being passed worked hand-in-hand.”

Another of the scrapyards was the Krejci dump, which the Krejci family ran between 1948 and 1980 as a municipal and industrial dump and/or salvage yard. Solid and liquid waste materials brought to the site were sorted, salvaged, stored, disposed and/or burned, but open dumping, spills, leaking containers, and burning caused contamination with toxic chemicals and metals.

The site became part of the Park in 1980, although the NPS didn’t take control of the site until 1985. Then it discovered that the site, which it had thought was a salvage yard, was so contaminated that it was effectively a ‘biological desert’ and qualified as a Superfund site.

In 2000, the National Parks Service reached a settlement agreement with several of the companies which dumped waste at the site in the 1950s and 1960s, including Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Chrysler, 3M, and Chevron. Ford took the lead in cleaning up and restoring the site, subject to NPS oversight. 

NPS/Chris Davis

“The decades-long effort set a legal precedent that cleaned up Krejci as well as other National Park Service (NPS) sites around the country,” NPS said. “Ultimately, the responsible parties paid more than $50 million to remove the toxins and restore the property.”

In 2012, after the removal of 375,000 tons of contaminated soil and debris, the park service began naturalizing the area, grading the soil and recreating 3.5 acres of seasonal wetlands and planting native grasses, wildflowers, and sedges.”

It was the most extensive and expensive of the hundreds of ongoing reclamation and rehabilitation projects overseen by the National Park Service. NPS certified the work as completed in December 2020.

“Today, the former Krejci dump is a site of environmental renewal. Located in the central region of the park, it’s a plant- and animal-filled seasonal marshland teeming with wildflowers, Jefferson salamanders, American toads, bald eagles, and woodcocks. “This was a toxic wasteland only a few decades ago,” says plant ecologist Chris Davis. “To find this diversity of species there today is remarkable.”

“The completion of the remediation and restoration work necessary to eliminate public health risks and the impairment of park resources marks a great achievement for Cuyahoga Valley National Park and everyone who has been involved in this long process,” acting Park Superintendent Lisa Petit said in a statement. “Together, we have completely removed one of the most toxic Superfund sites in the national park system and made it safe for the public to enjoy.”

Sources:

It was a toxic wasteland. Now it’s a national park. National Geographic, May 9, 2022

Krejci dump. Wikipedia.

The Cuyahoga River caught fire 50 years ago. It inspired a movement. National Geographic, Jun. 21, 2019

Removing toxins at Krejci Dump. National Parks Service.

National Park Service’s Krejci Dump Site Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Central Hazardous Materials Fund, Dept of the Interior

Cuyahoga Valley National Park wraps up Krejci Dump clean-up, restoration. Cleveland.com, Mar. 2, 2021

Cover Image: A photo of the Cuyahoga River as viewed from a portion of the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail in the city of Peninsula, Ohio at Cuyahoga Valley National Park. By Kevin Payravi on Wikimedia Commons.