Kent greener after 39 years of action

Jenna Staul

Locals reflect on first eco-friendly activities

Walt Adams remembers a time when going green wasn’t so fashionable.

It was 39 years ago today that he and a handful of others spent their first Earth Day wading through the Cuyahoga River in Kent, removing debris and garbage from its deeply polluted waters.

The major waterway – famous for being so contaminated it once caught fire – had become a veritable junkyard for the city’s waste.

“The river was thought of as a convenient sewer,” Adams said. “At the time we had a lot of interest in getting the Clean Water and Air acts passed, and we were getting a lot of air downwind from the rubber factories in Akron, which was really bad.”

A group of Kent residents, headed by Adams, rallied around the Cuyahoga’s cause and just months after the nation’s first Earth Day celebration, the newly formed Kent Environmental Council organized its first official cleanup of the river.

Adams said the organization devoted several weeks to cleaning the river in its first year, often using tractors to remove heavy debris.

“We were concerned – we knew it was in bad shape,” said Caroline Arnold, a long-time Kent Environmental Council member who took part in Kent’s first Earth Day. “People used to say the river was so polluted that if you dipped your feet in with your tennis shoes on it would dissolve your shoes.”

Arnold said while Kent residents helped pioneer the observation of Earth Day, the milestone is shadowed by a more infamous day in Kent that occurred in the following weeks – the May 4 shootings.

“It ended up being about a week before May 4, and that sort of eclipsed it,” Arnold said.

Today, the group is still active in the community, meeting weekly for a Friday morning breakfast at Diggers. The group has expanded its vision well beyond the river’s well-being and has been influential over the decades in establishing the River Ridge Park in Kent as well as a city-wide recycling program.

Though its membership – many of whom have remained in the organization since its beginning – has aged and its focus has shifted, the group still remains dedicated to cleaning up Kent.

“We’re old fogies now,” said Larry Cole, a member of the group since its initiation. “We blew our youth doing this stuff.”

Cole said grassroots groups like the Kent Environmental Council have played a crucial role in making the concept of environmentalism a mainstream movement.

“Well, the river is a totally different animal now,” Cole said. “But it’s very important (to have a group like the environmental council) because a larger state or national group can’t keep their fingers on what’s going on in the local level.”

Arnold said she feels gratified that the notion of eco-friendliness has become more widespread in recent years, adding that public awareness about the environment and global warming has grown dramatically over the past decade.

“I’ve always thought and hoped that Earth Day would take off,” Arnold said. “It’s very encouraging to see an increase in the number of people who are concerned.”

Contact public affairs reporter Jenna Staul at [email protected].