Shocking images of air pollution from Cleveland’s past

Yesterday, the American Lung Association released its annual “State of the Air” report. The report contained some depressing information on the quality of air in this country. In the wealthiest country in the history of the human race, 47% of people – 147.6 million individuals – live in areas that fail to meet standards for ozone or particulate matter pollution.

Cleveland ranks among the 25 dirtiest cities for both ozone pollution and year-round particulate matter pollution. The report makes it clear – we have a lot of work to do in order to guarantee Americans their right to a healthy environment. That’s what makes victories like the Supreme Court’s ruling to uphold the EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule so incredibly significant.

But the report also shows how far we have come as a country since the bad old days before the Clean Air Act. While the economy has grown by 219%, vehicle miles traveled has jumped by 165%, and population has increased by 53% since the act was passed in 1970, emissions for the six key criteria pollutants has fallen by 72%. Clearly we can, and have, decouple air pollution from economic growth, despite the apoplectic protestations from industry pollution proponents.

air pollution trends 1970-2012

Source: American Lung Association

I know that I have decried the public health menace that is air pollution in Cleveland on multiple occasions – and I’m not about to stop until we really tackle the issue head on – but it is useful to put the problem in its proper perspective. The air has gotten a whole hell of a lot cleaner, even if we still don’t meet ozone or PM 2.5 standards. As the report notes, Cuyahoga County endured 6.4 fewer ozone action days in 2012 as in 1996, and annual PM 2.5 levels have dropped by 6.1 µg/m3 since 2000.

To that end, here are some pictures from Cleveland’s past that show just how far we have come.

Industrial pollution obscures Cleveland's cityscape in this 1960 photo from Robert Wyly (courtesy of Elvin Wyly).

Industrial pollution obscures Cleveland’s cityscape in this 1960 photo from Robert Wyly (courtesy of Elvin Wyly).

robert wyly cleveland pollution

Another view of Cleveland in 1960 from the Industrial Flats (courtesy of Elvin Wyly).

robert wyly cleveland pollution

Smog engulfs downtown in June 1960 (courtesy of Elvin Wyly).

ltv steel plant pollution 1961

Pollution spews from the LTV steel mill, the centerpiece of Cleveland’s steel industry. The plant, now owned by ArcelorMittal, has gotten cleaner, but it remains the single largest polluter in Cleveland (courtesy of Roger Kobus).

cleveland skyline pollution 7-20-1973

No, this isn’t a sepia photo. The Cleveland skyline is nearly invisible in this July 20, 1973 picture, part of a collection commissioned by the EPA to document the country’s environmental crisis (courtesy of the National Archives).

clark ave bridge smog 1973

Smog completely engulfs the Clark Avenue bridge, which runs above the heart of the Industrial Flats, in July 1973 (courtesy of the National Archives).

clark ave bridge smog

Another image of the Clark Avenue bridge on that day in July 1973 (courtesy of the National Archives).

clark ave bridge smog

The Clark Avenue bridge (courtesy of the National Archives).

republic steel mill 1973

The Republic Steel mill dominates the landscape like a filthy Leviathon in this 1973 photo (courtesy of the National Archives).

baseball game republic steel 1973

Kids play baseball in the shadow of the Republic Steel mill. I played on these same fields in grade school, and I am grateful I didn’t have to breathe that filth (courtesy of the National Archives).

republic steel smoke stack terminal tower

Pollution from the Republic Steel mill nearly encompasses the Terminal Tower (courtesy of the National Archives).

air pollution sunset 1973

The sun struggles to break through Cleveland’s smog on July 20, 1973 (courtesy of the National Archives).