The water is cleaner but the politics are messier: A look back at the Clean Water Act movement after 50 years

This is first in our Good River: Stories of the Ohio Series

In June 1969, a Time Magazine article garnered national attention when it brought to light the water quality conditions in Ohio: a river had literally caught fire. 

Oil-soaked debris ignited after sparks, likely from a passing train, set the slick ablaze. Local media actually didn’t spend much time reporting on the fire. This was, after all, at least the 13th time a waterway had been set ablaze in Ohio alone, not to mention river fires in Philadelphia, Baltimore and other industrial cities. Time Magazine didn’t even run pictures of this specific fire. Instead, they used stock photos of another fire that happened in the same area in 1957. 

But America in 1969 had had enough with dangerous rivers.

Man pulling off invasive species

Fewer Invasive Species Reach the Great Lakes, but Those Here Continue to Spread

Scientists, Regulators and Industry Representatives Debate if Ballast Water Treatment is an Option

More than $375 billion in cargo — iron ore, coal, cement, stone, grain and more — has flowed between Great Lakes ports and foreign nations since 1959. That’s when Queen Elizabeth and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower christened the St. Lawrence Seaway, heralding it as an engineering marvel.  

But that series of locks, dams and channels connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean also carved a pathway for foreign plants and animals to wreak billions of dollars in ecological damage to the lakes. At least 80 invasive species have arrived in the ballast water transatlantic ships take in and discharge for balance. 

The round goby, which came from the Black and Caspian seas in the 1990s, gobbles up food some native fish depend upon. So do European zebra and quagga mussels, which also damage docks and boats and clog pipes and machinery, costing the Great Lakes region an estimated $500 million each year.

Q & A: Why is Lake Erie’s algae bloom growing again?

GIBRALTAR ISLAND, Ohio  — Four years ago, Lake Erie algae wreaked havoc on the Toledo water system, affecting 400,000 residents in Ohio and Southeast Michigan. Known as harmful algal blooms, the deep green ooze grows by the mile each year, fed by phosphorus-rich runoff from farm fields. Though not always toxic, the eyesores gunk up beaches, choke marine life, and became far more serious in August 2014. That’s when Toledo’s water system sucked up cyanobacteria (known as blue-green algae, though it’s technically not algae) and contaminated drinking water with microcystin, a toxin that can cause liver and kidney damage. The scare prompted residents to rely on bottled water for three days and cost about $65 million, mostly in lost tax revenue and tourism.

Where did ~$250 million go? Rate hike funds still unaccounted for in FirstEnergy Bankruptcy

Ohio ratepayers have paid FirstEnergy’s utilities roughly a quarter of a billion dollars since January 2017 under a distribution modernization rider. Now, critics say FirstEnergy is stalling on saying just what it’s doing with that money, which regulators approved without any requirements that it pay for specific projects. The mandate for consumers to pay the rider is currently on appeal before the Supreme Court of Ohio. Meanwhile, FirstEnergy’s utilities have been collecting the $168 million per year, and regulators could renew the charge for another two years after 2019. “To date, FirstEnergy has stymied the efforts of the state-designated advocate of its consumers to discover information about its subsidy charges,” Ohio Consumers’ Counsel Bruce Weston and assistant counsel Zachary Woltz said in a July 13 brief.