How long a shadow does a 50-foot dump pile cast?
Between 2014 and 2017, Arco Recycling in East Cleveland—on Noble Road, just minutes from the north side of Cleveland Heights—operated a dump that Diane Bickett, director of the Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District (CCSWD), described as “a sham facility that was going to take in material, claim to be recycling it, make money off of having the material dumped there, and pocket the money and then abandon the site,” in an article by Nick Castele (www.ideastream.org/news/how-publicly-funded-demolitions-fed-an-east-cleveland-dump). Full of noxious waste, including carcinogenic drywall, the Arco site filled a space the equivalent of five football fields, in a residential area.
As an 18-year resident of Noble neighborhood, I was aware of the environmental concerns the Arco site posed—not only to immediately adjacent homes in East Cleveland, already vulnerable due to municipal neglect, but to all of us living in close proximity to its toxic dust. At its zenith, the height of the litter rose to 50 feet—Bickett rightly noted, “We knew the material would pile up.” Despite CCSWD’s 2015 appeal to the Cuyahoga Land Bank, the agency that gave Arco contracts to demolish properties across the county, to stop dumping, the Land Bank declined to do so. Bickett told Castele, “The Land Bank said, well, it’s the cheapest location. We’re going to take material there.” It was not until January 2017 that the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency intervened.
The “cheapest location” the Land Bank could apparently find cost Ohio taxpayers $9.1 million dollars to clean up. We don’t know yet the extent of Arco’s legacy on public health, let alone the environment.
One issue that should be of particular interest to Cleveland Heights residents remains unaddressed: Cheryl Stephens, then-sitting CH City Council member and Land Bank employee, was in a key position to be aware—because of Bickett’s 2015 plea to Stephens's employer—that Arco was being operated in a way that violated the public trust. Stephens did not, as Bickett requested, advocate for the Land Bank to stop dumping there. To the contrary, Stephens later noted, “The Land Bank did do business with this company” because it lacked "the authority to shut Arco down.”
It is a mystery why Stephens did not choose to guide the Land Bank to mitigate the damage Arco caused 2015–17. Gus Frangos, the Land Bank president, needed to stop settling on the cheapest bid to handle its demolition debris, and Stephens seemed to be in a position to have his ear. That Stephens didn’t try, or couldn’t convince, Frangos to relent—at the expense of East Cleveland, Noble neighborhood, and Cuyahoga County, on multiple levels—raises the question of why Stephens continues to be entrusted with a public role where advocacy on critical issues is an essential function. East Cleveland and Noble have and will suffer repercussions of the dump, and precious tax dollars were wasted to remediate it; yet Stephens managed to win election to the District 10 County Council seat.
Thanks to Castele, we know that the Land Bank knowingly and intentionally aided an environmental attack against a high-poverty, poorly managed and low-resource city that lacked the public voice to stop the Arco dump. As a city council member and Land Bank employee, Stephens appears to have missed a critical opportunity to advance the Land Bank’s mission to "reduce blight, increase property values, support community goals and improve the quality of life for county residents.” As she continues to exert influence in the county, voters need to continue to demand answers about this environmental catastrophe and Stephens’s role in it. We must demand better representation from her in the future. Cleveland Heights, and all first-ring suburbs, deserve that high level of ethical, socially just, advocacy.
Sarah West holds a Ph.D. in urban education policy from Cleveland State University, and is a former member of the Cleveland Heights Citizens Advisory Committee and the Cleveland Heights Charter Review Commission.