CLEVELAND — Three months shy of the 50th anniversary of the Cuyahoga River fire, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has determined fish that call the river home are now safe to eat.
The watershed, which was listed as an ‘area of concern’ in 1987, includes nearly two dozen creeks and roughly 10 miles of Lake Erie shoreline.
On June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River famously caught fire. However, it was neither the first fire nor the worst fire the river has experienced. The 1969 blaze drew national attention, eventually becoming the impetus for environmental regulation that still exists today, including the creation of the EPA as well as the passage of the Clean Water Act.
Governor Mike DeWine lauded the easing of fish consumption restrictions, saying it is an important step toward ultimately removing the river altogether as an area of concern.
“This is an example of the progress that can be achieved when you collaborate and dedicate resources to improving the quality of water in our state,” DeWine said in a statement. “We need to continue to invest in our water resources so that we can see additional improvements.”
The EPA’s decision is a living testament to the decades’ worth of work and billions of dollars spent on water and sewer infrastructure in recent years, said Julius Ciaccia, the chairman of the Cleveland Water Alliance Board of Directors. Ciacca is also the former CEO of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, which was also born out of the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire.
“It’s huge. When you think about where we came from 50 years ago — it just happens to be 50 years ago this year that the river last caught on fire — and all the work that has been done since then by so many people, this is a big deal,” Ciaccia said. “We’re very happy about that both as a community, at the Cleveland Water Alliance and the people we represent, this is just a huge, huge deal for us. It’s so timely.”
The U.S. EPA agreed with Ohio EPA’s recommendation that restrictions on fish consumption be eased from Gorge Dam near Akron to Lake Erie in Cleveland. State regulators proposed the change last year judging by improvements observed through fish tissue sampling. Although the fish are safe to eat, they should only be consumed in moderation.
Brown bullhead, carp and catfish found in the river fall under the same standard as those who are caught in the lake. The state recommends one meal per month.
“We’ve come all the way from being totally on fire, impaired to now realizing there’s some real opportunities from an economic development standpoint for our region and the business that do business here,” Ciaccia said. “What we can’t forget are the people, the people of this region, the elected officials in this region that had the guts to tackle this issue head on. We also can’t forget the people who paid for it: the ratepayers.”
This is the third "beneficial use impairment" that has been removed by the EPA since late 2017. The Cuyahoga Area of Concern Committee has seven other impairments it is working to rectify.
Those impairments include: degradation of fish habitat, degradation of fish populations, unwanted algae, occurrence of fish tumors, degradations of benthos, restrictions of navigational dredging and beach closings.