Republic Steel Corporation

The Prisoners of Cleveland's War on Air Pollution

On August 13, 1970, the Cleveland Plain Dealer provided a chilling exposé on Cleveland's deteriorating air quality. The article ruthlessly reported, "To the casual observer – the stranger to the neighborhood – it was alarming; the odor stuck in your throat; the smell made your eyes water." For those living near the heavy industrial plants in Cleveland, air pollution was more than a nuisance or an inconvenience. With every passing day, Clevelanders residing in the Broadway area to the southeast of downtown needed to reconfigure their lives because of the constant presence of dirty air. Air pollution prevented residents from hanging clothes outside to dry and from engaging in a variety of outdoor leisure activities. They developed a multitude of respiratory conditions. Cancerous tumors riddled their bodies. They were forced to regularly paint their houses – anything to hold on to some form of beauty, amid their depressing living situations. While on site, conducting interviews for the exposé, two Plain Dealer correspondents noticed the "chemicals from the Cuyahoga River industrial valley were filling the air with an acrid smell. Most noticeable was Republic Steel Corp.'s coke works where giant smoke clouds were belched into the air, then slowly spread like a blanket over the neighborhood."

In 1937, Cleveland had welcomed Republic Steel as the newest addition to the city's industrial complex. Republic Steel's investment in the community was applauded and considered vital to the city's health. By the late 1950s, however, cities and industries had grown so rapidly that the air pollutants released by the industrial centers hit a critical mass. The overpowering presence of air pollution in urban areas, across the nation, could no longer be ignored. Republic Steel became the focal point of the air pollution war that raged in Cleveland from the late 1950s through the 1970s.

Clevelanders responded to the controversy over Republic Steel's contribution to air pollution in one of two ways. They either said, "What's all the yapping about?" or compellingly described the air pollution as so potent, "'You could actually taste it.'" A community member related, "If I had to choose between air pollution enforcement and [the] loss of industry, I'd say I'll take the air pollution." For some members in the community the answer to the debate was that simple. Steel workers accepted their much-needed paychecks, even though their work resulted in pollution.

The other side of the public debate on Republic Steel and air pollution eclipsed their opponents' voices. Resident-led anti-air pollution organizations ascended as the voice of the community. The citizen group members went to the local clean air functions, debates and meetings, and there they demanded answers from the City of Cleveland and local industrial complexes. Dramatic statements, espoused by the clean air organizations, expressed how passionate the members felt toward their cause. In a letter to the editor, Joseph F. Jedlinsky of the Southeast Air Pollution Committee declared, "The Indians were once the forgotten people, but now it seems residents bordering the vast industrial valley are the new forgotten people. Don’t let smog strangle our city." Citizens from the community gathered in strength to speak out against Republic Steel's and the City of Cleveland's disregard of the seriousness of air pollution. Anti-air pollution community organizations engaged in a zealous fight against Republic Steel and other industrial manufacturing companies. These groups sought to win the fight against industrial air polluters through citizen advocacy and local legislation. The anti-air pollution citizen groups were committed to the fight.

Citizen watch groups attempted to hold the local government accountable for its lackadaisical enforcement of air pollution codes aimed at industrial complexes. Casimir Bielen, the secretary of the Ohio Pure Air Association and a resident of Cleveland, expressed "that the primary responsibility for the regulatory control of air pollution rests with the local government." The city wanted to alleviate the public's pressure on the industrial complexes. But, the public looked to the local government to solve the city's air pollution problem. Indisputably, the residents of Cleveland were imprisoned by Republic Steel's air pollution.

There was no instant fix to the problem of air pollution. The City of Cleveland and the public had fewer options because of Republic Steel's and other industrial companies air pollution. As the corporation headed into the 1970s, Republic Steel's own perils from a business standpoint often went ignored. The public demanded results, but Republic Steel argued that results took time. Throughout the air pollution war that raged in Cleveland, the corporation's administration maintained that they "must protect Republic's interest to the best of our ability." Republic Steel's air pollution along with foreign competition, pension costs, and the rise of aluminum manufacturing contributed to its default, signified by the corporation's merger with LTV Steel in 1984.

Republic Steel appeased the public with a constant prattling of good intentions that argued that the air pollution problem was controlled. Republic Steel was caught between the unrelenting smoke abatement demands from the public, the City of Cleveland's proposed pollution regulations, and the need to stay competitive in the steel manufacturing industry. Industrial air pollution further exacerbated the already stressed relationships between Clevelanders, the City of Cleveland, and Republic Steel.

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