“There Will Be an End to the Earth”
By Barry Yeoman
On the eve of the Republican National Convention, the Cleveland 2016 Host Committee threw a welcoming party for several thousand delegates and guests. It was held at the North Coast Harbor, a recreation area — closed to the public for the evening and heavily secured — between downtown and Lake Erie. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame threw open its doors, and local businesses supplied an abundance of shrimp ceviche, smoked lake perch and beer. Delegates danced to a live performance by Three Dog Night of the anti-racism anthem “Black and White.” A waxing moon rose over the skyline. There were stilt walkers and a trash-can drum corps and — was that Stephen Colbert? Why, yes it was.
The star attraction, though, was not Colbert or Three Dog Night, but rather Lake Erie itself, shimmering blue-gold, and later pink, under a setting sun, its fingers creeping past the Steamship William G. Mather to the edge of the Hall of Fame. The party was just out of sight from where the Cuyahoga River flows into the lake, a mile to the southwest.
The Cuyahoga is most famous, of course, for catching fire in June 1969 and helping awaken the nation to the dangers of unchecked industrial pollution. By then the river “was no longer the vital freshwater artery nourishing Lake Erie that nature designed it to be,” wrote journalist Dan Egan in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel two years ago. It was a repository, instead, for “everything from floating cow carcasses to acetylene tanks … It had become Cleveland’s colon, and the lake was a toilet.”
Republican National Convention: Clean Air is Not Free
Time published a photo of the river in flames, but failed to mention that the picture was taken during a more dramatic fire in 1952. Johnny Carson told jokes with burning-river punchlines. The images and comic monologues had their effect: Along with the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill and Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, the Cuyahoga fire helped stoke the modern environmental movement. President Richard Nixon, a Republican, created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, shortly after he signed the National Environmental Policy Act. Two years later, Congress passed the Clean Water Act.
“Clean air is not free, and neither is clean water,” Nixon said in his 1970 State of the Union address. “The price tag on pollution control is high. Through our years of past carelessness we incurred a debt to nature, and now that debt is being called.”
Nixon was no chlorophyll-bleeding radical; the Clean Water Act passed over his veto, and he privately complained to automobile executives about environmentalists who wanted to “go back and live like a bunch of damned animals.” But he did respond to the growing public demand for action.
Forty-odd years later, Cleveland now has beautiful waterfront spaces, lake and river alike. Lake Erie, however, remains threatened by toxic algae blooms, this time because of farm chemicals, which the Clean Water Act doesn’t regulate.
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