My dad always told me he never swam in Lake Erie because it was a filthy toilet.
We lived a few houses down from the lake in Euclid, but I never remember him going in like us kids. He made us hose off in the driveway, because he said we stunk. And we did.
He had good reason for not stepping into the lake. He was born in 1930 on Cleveland's East Side. If he wanted to swim, he went to Gordon Park, which was gifted to the city by iron ore shipper William J. Gordon upon his death in 1892. Cleveland thought so much of the property that it let the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co. build its big Lake Shore electric power plant — which at one time had 18 boilers and drank and spit out 500,000 gallons of Lake Erie water each day — right next to the city-owned beach in 1911. So for my dad, swimming in the lake meant sharing the water with the sewage from Cleveland toilets and chemical-laced discharges from the East 72nd Street plant.
Coal-fired electric plants from that era needed nearby railroad tracks to ship in the coal and a plentiful water supply to cool the generators and dump the wastewater when they were done with it. That's why, throughout the Midwest, these power plants were usually on lake or riverfront property.
Yet as Cleveland and other Great Lakes cities are rethinking their waterfront land usage and transitioning from the industrial model to an emphasis on public access and water sustainability, the plant (now owned by FirstEnergy) is at the forefront of this national issue. FirstEnergy officially closed its remaining coal-fired boilers at its Lake Shore, Eastlake and Ashtabula plants in mid-April.
The company says it will tear down the Lake Shore plant over the next 18 months but will keep the property (it has some transmission lines that intersect there). High-tech voltage support equipment to maintain the electrical grid has been built there, but otherwise FirstEnergy is unsure how it might use the 70-acre lakefront property.
The company "is open to any proposals that come forward," says FirstEnergy spokeswoman Stephanie Walton. Yet as of now, none have been offered, she says.
And that is the problem. FirstEnergy announced the Lake Shore plant closing in 2012 and more than 200 coal-fired plants have been shuttered nationwide through the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, yet hardly anyone is discussing what it might take to open up some important lakefront property in Cleveland for public use.
The truth is that without help from government or land conservancies, FirstEnergy has very little incentive to sell or donate the land since it is responsible for any cleanup costs if the property changes hands. Likewise, as a substation (a transmission hub that does not need a waterfront location), it avoids the cleanup costs and has fewer environmental regulations to meet.
In fact, that's exactly what the company did five years ago when it tore down the shuttered Edgewater power plant in Lorain. Built in 1919, the plant had 13 coal-fired boilers on 9.3 acres along the lake. In 2013, even the power lines and other substation infrastructure were removed. Yet the land is still waiting for development.
No one knows, however, exactly what the cleanup costs might be for the Lake Shore plant.
It is not a likely candidate for the EPA's Superfund program, which targets the country's most contaminated sites. Clearly, that's good from a health and environmental standpoint, but it also means the site also doesn't get priority from the federal
Consider the case of the cleanup and dismantling of the English Station power plant on the Mill River in New Haven, Connecticut. Back in 2000, the original owner told shareholders and a potential buyer it would cost about $8 million for rehab. Yet, the later estimate it gave regulators was closer to $30 million. Closed and abandoned, the rusting plant still stands and remains at the center of a nasty legal battle about who's responsible for the cleanup.
Since FirstEnergy has committed to taking the first step of tearing down the plant, now is the time for Cleveland business, philanthropic and government leaders to figure out how this property can be used to open up public or private development.
With Gordon Park and the Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve (about 200 acres combined) nearby, converting the property to public green space should be a priority.
A good place to start that discussion would be at the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 Summit held this month at Public Hall. The annual conference is part of the city's 10-year initiative launched in 2009 to create a more vibrant, sustainable and innovative town.
"This is a strategically important site," says David Beach, director of the GreenCityBlueLake Institute at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and a member of the Sustainable Cleveland stewardship council. "It was hard to do long-term planning with the future uncertain on that site, but it seems like that is changing now."
Cleveland councilman Jeff Johnson, whose Ward 10 includes the power plant and the neighborhood that juts south, has never heard any discussion about what might happen to the property.
"That needs to change," he says. "I think that the state and federal governments are going to have to take the lead on this. Cleveland doesn't have the funding to do this by ourselves, and it fits into the local and national goals of creating better access to waterfront."
But we need a launching point.
Let's begin by calculating the environmental cleanup costs. Then we can determine how that 70 acres might fit in with the existing parkland or lakefront development. To open up more land, we may even determine the cost and impact of rerouting the Cleveland Memorial Shoreway just south of Gordon Park.
Finally, we should figure out a funding formula that involves FirstEnergy, various government agencies and maybe the Western Reserve Land Conservancy to make it all work.
There is no doubt that any change would be expensive, but Cleveland has a chance to create more than 250 acres of contiguous park property on Lake Erie. It is doable if some of the principal players take the lead.
Then again, you have to change the mindset. You don't have to be on the shores of Lake Erie to make electricity and join transmission lines anymore. It is not where you dump your chemical refuse either. It is not a toilet.