An employee of the Ohio EPA, Steve Tuckerman discusses his work in managing water quality in Ohio and his current work in improving the Cuyahoga River watershed. As an employee of the EPA, Tuckerman outlines the goals of the EPA in maintaining dams and other watersheds in the area, including the protection of habitats for wildlife and ensuring environmental safety for citizens. Tuckerman also outlines the improvements that his organization has made in Northeast Ohio as well as some of the challenges faced in the last thirty years.
Tuckerman, Steve (interviewee)
Testa, Steve (interviewer)
Rivers Roads and Rails 2008
"Steve Tuckerman Interview, 2008" (2008). Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection. Interview 517030.
Steve Testa [00:00:01] I'd also want to be able to scratch a few notes.
Steve Tuckerman [00:00:03] Sure.
Steve Testa [00:00:06] As I said on the phone, I wanted to start with having you tell us a little bit about who you are.
Steve Tuckerman [00:00:10] So go ahead and start?
Steve Testa [00:00:11] Are you ready, Gary? Okay, so we'll just start by you telling us your name and the position you hold.
Steve Tuckerman [00:00:17] Okay, my name is Steve Tuckerman and I work for the Environmental Protection Agency, State of Ohio, as an environmental scientist.
Steve Testa [00:00:25] And where and when you were born?
Steve Tuckerman [00:00:27] Okay. I was born in Ravenna in 1953, and except for a few years living in northwestern Pennsylvania I've been a resident of northeastern Ohio my whole life.
Steve Testa [00:00:39] And how about school and growing up? I mean, you said you grew up in the area.
Steve Tuckerman [00:00:43] Right. I went to Emma Willard School in Bready Lake and then later went to Kent Roosevelt High School and got my B.S. in Biology from Kent State University.
Steve Testa [00:00:57] And when you pursued this career with Biology and then ending up with the idea, was that ultimately your plan or had it developed along the way?
Steve Tuckerman [00:01:24] That kind of developed along the way. I lived out in the hinterlands a little bit. It wasn't suburbia, but it wasn't out in the middle of nowhere either. And so I was always, you know, close to Mother Nature, if you will. And so I always had that in kind of the back of my mind and just kind of continued to fall into it. And since you're all educators, it was a principal at Emma Willard School that actually got me going into more academic pursuit of outdoors. When I was a little kid they had just planted some pine trees out near the school yard. And as a little kid, I was just playing around. I was jumping over the trees to see if I could jump over top of them. And of course, I didn't make all of them, so I landed on top of the trees and kind of squished a few and all that kind of stuff, and my principal was up in his office watching me do this on recess. And as I came in, he pulled me off to the side and he says, Steve, I saw what you're doing. He said, you have fun? And I go, Oh, yeah, it's a great time. He says, you know, you killed a few trees probably. I go, yeah. [laughs] And then he said, Well, Steve, trees are really important to us. I want you to write a six-page essay on why trees are important to us. You know, and [to] a little kid, six pages is like a death sentence. And anyway, I got into it and I actually took it somewhat seriously and did some research and just realized how neat some trees and everything were and that kind of got me started on the academic pursuit. You know, I'd always been hunting and fishing and everything with that kind of got me going down that route.
Steve Testa [00:02:44] So once you graduated with your degree in Biology, how did you end up, what was the bridge to the EPA?
Steve Tuckerman [00:02:50] It was serendipity and pure luck. I had worked for the U.S. Forest Service over in western Pennsylvania for four years, and I was caught in a RIF, reduction in force, and got laid off. And I was working up in a factory to make ends meet up in Cleveland and was driving by Route 82 wihere the office is, and there was a big sign that says Ohio EPA. And I go, hmm, Ohio EPA. That sounds like something for me. So I stopped in and says... And I was all scruffy and, you know, I had a big beard at that time and big fuzzy hair and everything and just kind of walked in and talked to the receptionist and said, Hey, you got a job? And the guy that eventually hired me just happened to be walking by. Otherwise I'd have been thrown out on my ear, I think. And he saw me right away. He knew I was a biologist just from the appearance and everything. And at that time, the Ohio EPA was like 98 percent engineers and they were trying to staff up with more environmental scientists and biologist-type stuff. And so when he saw me, he says, yeah, this is somebody that might be might fit into what we're trying to do. And at that time, almost nobody worked for the EPA because it was a fairly new organization. And so there weren't an awful lot of job job applicants. So when I applied, I went ahead and got the job.
Steve Testa [00:04:14] And what was your early role there?
Steve Tuckerman [00:04:18] Actually, the early role was basically doing the same thing I'm doing now. Looking at water quality in northeast Ohio, rivers and streams predominantly, although we did some work in Lake Erie and some of the ponds and stuff, but it was looking out after the lakes and streams and make sure that dischargers that had permits were meeting their permit limits and then assessing the receiving streams to see whether or not the water quality standards were being met. The assessment would include water chemistry, sediment chemistry, macro invertebrates and fish evaluations.
Steve Testa [00:04:52] We're going to spend a lot more time talking about those kind of things and asking you questions about that. On the phone you had mentioned to me about you had done some private consulting and you worked for the City of Kent. I wondered if you would just tell us about that.
Steve Tuckerman [00:05:04] Oh, okay. Prior to my work with the U.S. Forest Service, I worked for the City of Kent at the water treatment center. Basically, I operated a third shift for drinking water to make sure everybody had decent drinking water, so that was, that was an early job. And then after I worked for the Ohio EPA in the water quality division I just mentioned, I went to the Superfund slash Hazardous Waste section—at that time it was combined—and started... helped start the Hazardous Waste section in Northeast District Office and worked on several Superfund sites, including Fields Brook and New Lime and Old Mill and Diamond Shamrock and quite a few other Superfund sites. At that... After that stint, I decided to leave the agency and went to a private consulting firm. Actually I started my own business in a consulting firm and that fell through. And then I went with a private consulting firm doing environmental assessments and Superfund work. I worked for US EPA's Technical Assistance Team and actually worked on the Krejci [Dump] site for emergency removal of the hazardous constituents that were here in the park.
Steve Testa [00:06:21] I wonder if maybe you might comment on what was sort of a favorite or one of the most memorable moments in working there before you got to this position again?
Steve Tuckerman [00:06:34] Oh, one of the most favorable. It was all fun. Because it was a new program, the quote unquote dark side didn't know an awful lot about the regulations. Hazardous waste was in the news because of Love Canal. They were brand-new regulations, and so we were out there and we basically jumpstarted the program. And the thing that was most gratifying about it is you saw instant results in that you went out to a company that was just a mess with drums and stuff spilled all over the place, and we were able to go in there right away and clean it up. And it was really gratifying. And actually the opposite of that, when it started to become bureaucratic with a lot of paperwork and everything, that was one of the main decisions why I left the agency and went to consulting because it was just starting to get too bogged down with paperwork and bureaucracy and mindless-type stuff like that. So I don't know if I could pinpoint one particular area working on all the Superfund projects. Fields Brook was was very, very good project. We had a pesticide fire down in Alliance. That was gratifying to work on. There's nothing that really stands out above the others. It was just all fun.
Steve Testa [00:07:55] What about some projects now in your current position with the EPA that may be specific to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park?
Steve Tuckerman [00:08:04] Okay. My current responsibilities include the entire watershed of the Cuyahoga River. So probably half to three-fourths of my waking hours when I'm working—and we do stay awake sometimes in government—is working on improving the Cuyahoga River. Some of the things we're most proud, and I say we because of course it's just not me, there's a huge staff back in the agency that helped work on this, but the new permits, the improvements in the discharge from all of the wastewater treatment plants is just tremendous. Most recently, we were able to remove two dams and Kent and Munroe Falls. Those were my projects that were very gratifying and we saw immediate results. Within just a few months we had full attainment of our water quality standards, which was very unexpected. We knew that we were going to get improvements, but we figured it's going to take several years. But it really came by through really quick. So that was very gratifying. And I guess the other aspect that's very gratifying is just seeing people come back to the river. For the longest time, people had turned their backs to the river. It was a sewer, you know, someplace you don't want to go to and you just stayed away from it. And now it's a drawing card and that's, that's really neat.
Steve Testa [00:09:30] With those dam projects, I wonder if you would be a little more specific about how the improvement actually took place, what you were looking at before and what we're looking at now.
Steve Tuckerman [00:09:43] Both the Kent and Munroe Falls dam pools, they were... The dams themselves were small, low head dams, about 10 to 15 feet tall. And they were used for back in the Canal era and for water power. And they had outlived their useful purposes. They were just basically icons of the communities. Both Kent and Munroe Falls had those prominently on their letter[head]... stationery and things like that. But as far as any type of useful purpose other than just they were there, it was nonexistent. So the dams created dam pools that really basically eliminated the riverine habitat for the fish. It created a habitat that was neither lake nor river. And basically it was just it was a bad, bad situation no matter what you're talking about, whether you were a lake fish or a river fish. The river was really stagnant. There were big clumps of algae and unsightly. It stank. A lot of people, you know, commented about how stinky it was. And we had very low dissolved oxygen, which again, precluded fish from being in the dam pool. And with the Kent Dam especially, we bypassed it. And as a note to the historians, we kept the Stone Arch Dam, which is an historic structure. The whole project was in a national historic preservation area, historic district. And so we bypassed Stone Dam and we returned the free flow of the river. And as I mentioned earlier, within a few months, we were getting decent fish populations that meet our water quality standards.
Steve Testa [00:11:25] And I think there's been some park that has built up in the downtown area there, and as you said, people coming back. I wondered if maybe you'd comment on that kind of social aspect of the positive work.
Steve Tuckerman [00:11:39] That was also gratifying. The... After the project was well on its way the city park system decided to go ahead and make a new park out of it called Riveredge Park. And again, it was just real gratifying to see people come down to the river, whereas before they just kind of drove over the bridge. And in fact, some people said, oh, I didn't even know the river was there. But then it became a drawing card for people to go down to the river and you saw kayakers come down, although they were there before. I think they're a lot more prevalent now. And kids were coming down. And one of the design aspects, we wanted to get 'em down to the river. And again, just last weekend, we were down there and their kids walking in the river and dipping their heads in and getting wet and everything. And we're seeing weddings taking place down there, which they never would have done that before as stinky as the old dam pool was. And then also the City of Kent is investigating a grant from Ohio Department of Natural Resources to further develop that area for a whitewater park, for doing whitewater canoeing and kayaking through the city. So they're kind of using that as a downtown redevelopment tool.
Steve Testa [00:12:54] What about other dams and blockages or cleanup programs that are either in the future or ongoing right now related to Cuyahoga River?
Steve Testa [00:13:04] Okay, well, we got to the really deplorable state of the Cuyahoga over a long period of time. So it's taken... it's going to take a while to get back to where we want it to be. So it's it's been very incremental. But some of the other projects include the State Route 82 Dam, which is the first dam of the Cuyahoga up from Lake Erie. And we're right now going through a feasibility study to see whether or not that's a candidate for removal. And we're about, oh, half to three-fourths of the way through an environmental impact statement for that project to decide what we can or can't do for for removing that obstacle to the river. And again, it's the same type of issues. The Kent Dam, downstream from the dam, we've got full attainment and upstream we don't, and it's it's pretty clear cut. Plus, unfortunately, we've had some deaths from drowning from that dam, so there's a couple of reasons why it'd be a good idea to get rid of that dam. But at the same point, we want to continue to water the Ohio Canal, which is, of course, a big historic part of the park as well as northeastern Ohio. And so that's really the biggest hurdle is how do we get water into the dam, into the, excuse me, the Ohio Canal while getting rid of the dam and all the problems that that entails. Other projects include... There are two small low head dams in Cuyahoga Falls, and we're working with the city to to see if they would be amenable to getting rid of those dams. Again, all of the the dam removals are not under Ohio EPA regulation. We don't have any sticks to get rid of them. It's primarily a bunch of carrots that we try to give people. So we have to work with them rather than dictating what they can do. So it's a little bit different role as a regulator. I can tell you it's a lot easier to tell people what to do than to ask them to do it voluntarily. But it's still just as gratifying when you see the results. In addition to the Cuyahoga Falls dams, there is a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licensing project on an existing dam in the Cuyahoga River Gorge called Ohio Edison Dam. And I'm in the middle of that also to see whether or not a license is going to be given to that particular project to generate electricity. If a license is granted, it basically means that dam is going to be off hands for 50 years. And so, again, we're very concerned about that. Taking a look very closely at the impacts that that could have on the water quality, if that is licensed.
Steve Testa [00:15:40] Let's take both of those statements and kind of explore them a little bit more. First, working with the public and probably political officials, as well as just some PR with neighbors, we'll start with that one about, you know, any of the work in removing any of these kind of dams or doing any project.
Steve Tuckerman [00:16:01] Well, the Kent project—I keep going back to the can't because that was, it really is almost a model for how things should be done—City of Kent was very progressive and they knew right up front that without buy-in from the local populace, this would never get done, no matter how much, how many carrots we waved in front of them. So the first thing they did is the City of Kent set up a Kent Dam Advisory Council, which was made up of citizens, prominent educators from Kent State University, scientists, and local politicians. And they specifically did not want anybody from Ohio EPA there. They wanted this to be completely a community-driven thing. What we did is we gave them what needed to be done in order to meet our water quality standards and that it had to be a river that had suitable habitat. It had to have sufficient dissolved oxygen for the fish and fish had to be allowed to freely move upstream and downstream to meet their lifestyle, not lifestyle, but life history needs. And basically, that's the only thing we told them. And after that, it was completely up to the citizens to decide what they wanted to do. And it was a painful process. I don't know how many meetings we went to because they asked us to come in and make presentations about what the problems were, what we wanted to do. And as you can imagine with... The dam is an icon to the city with all of the stationery and everything like that. And whenever you do change, people are just very resistant to it. So it was... it was interesting, but we worked through that process and it came out to be a much better project than than we even envisioned and it really was a big success story. And one of the reasons that it was real successful is that although it was around 2000 or so that we actually proposed this, we actually started educating—and I'm not doing this because you guys are teachers—but we actually started educating folks back in the mid 1990s. We started a series of seminars about water quality. We started with real basic things. This is water. These are the chemical properties of it. It flows downhill. I mean, just real basic stuff and went through and explained exactly why we had some water quality issues in the middle part of the Cuyahoga, because we saw a lot of problems coming to a head and we were trying to to stave those off by educating folks to know what's coming on. And we were hoping for some regional cooperation and collaboration so that there wouldn't be a lot of fighting in what we call water wars. Unfortunately, I think we started a little bit too late because, and I can... I can't remember the exact year, but it might have been right around 2000. Again, City of Kent took the City of Akron to court over the use of the river. Basically, the City of Akron eliminated the flow through Lake Rockwell for the city's drinking water purposes and, which meant that the Cuyahoga River through Kent was a lot less flow than it would have naturally. And they took Akron to court. It wound through the courts and ultimately ended up in the state Supreme Court that basically predominantly sided with the City of Kent and said that Akron had to, had a right to the water, but they had only a reasonable right to that water and reasonable use. And they had to release a certain amount of water to maintain decent water quality for the folks downstream. So that was the end of that. We were trying to stave off that whole process. We didn't quite do it, but we think we laid the foundation for a successful dam removal projects and Kent and Munroe Falls. So that was a long-winded answer to your question.
Steve Testa [00:19:50] How would you assess, say, community education today? Are people more aware of this issue. Are they better at understanding?
Steve Tuckerman [00:20:01] Yeah, I think they're a lot more, better educated about the issues. And it's not just Ohio EPA, but there's an awful lot of groups, a lot of the watershed groups, the national park, even the generic media, I think are much more in tune about environmental issues and about the subtleties that occur around such environmental issues. It's not the glory days when you have big, stinky black water spewing out of a pipe. Those are easy fixes. Those are the glory days of cleaning up the environment. Now, it's a lot tougher row to hoe. We don't have dead fish like we used to and stinky water and in rivers catching on fire. Those things are easy to rally people around. And now it's a lot more of an educational job to understand the subtle effects that are occurring out there and how those are not sustainable and how without sustainable water resources our society is in trouble.
Steve Testa [00:20:59] What would be, say, the most important project that is in the future for the water quality in the Cuyahoga River? I mean, since you said you've already cleaned up some of the easier ones right now, what's the next step?
Steve Tuckerman [00:21:15] The hardest part is convincing everybody that they're the problem in that the Clean Water Act has been a phenomenal success in getting decent water quality coming out of our treatment plants, our wastewater treatment plants. Of course not everything's perfect, but it's light years, a sea change, better than what it was back in the '70s when I was growing up, '60s and '70s. So that's been a tremendous improvement, but good water resources, not just clean water. There's a whole lot of things that go with it. One of the problems we have is that everybody has a definition of a stream. It's just a bunch of water flowing in a channel. And a river is much more than that. It's all of the land that connects to it, the trees around it, things that are living in it. So one of the things we have to get out is to educate people that that's exactly what a stream is, a river is. It's not just the water in it, but it's everything that's connected to it. And with some of the highest population centers in Ohio situated within the Cuyahoga River Valley, it's how we manage the land that has a more direct impact on the water than what they flushed down the toilet as it is right now. And getting that, you know, across to people is really difficult because everybody thinks, you know, I'm a good person. I'm not harming the water quality. I just want to have my little nice little lawn without any weeds in it, or I want to be able to build a brand-new house out in the middle of the woods or something like that. And in and of itself, just that one person doing that is not a problem. But when there's tens of thousands, millions of people doing that in a small watershed, those are the problems we have to face with. So, it's much more of a challenge than it was earlier.
Steve Testa [00:23:14] What would you like to see, say, an individual community member do that might be an easy fix that would make a tremendous difference in the water?
Steve Tuckerman [00:23:28] You didn't say the questions are going to be hard. [laughs] There's a lot of things that folks can do. And they're little things, and when you start talking about 'em, it seems so insignificant and again, just one act is insignificant but when you add 'em up, it can be a tremendous difference. Things like do we really need to have fertilized lawns that are lush green without a spot of weed in them, or can we go with some more naturalized landscape that includes weeds that you don't have to put massive amounts of fertilizer and weed killers on? Nutrients are a big issue. And in runoff coming from fertilized plots of land such as lawns are a big thing. Sustainable use, you know, buy things locally, recycle, reuse, reduce. You know, that whole nine yards. The mantra. It's not sexy, but it's... Small, incremental, continuous progress is what's needed. And it's very easy to stray from that path.
Steve Testa [00:24:45] The sustainable comment and buying locally, why would that help?
Steve Tuckerman [00:24:52] I think a lot of people get disconnected from the land and disconnected from the watershed. And I think if you have, you know, buy-in to get things that are produced locally, I think they get more in tune with how their farmers are producing their goods, what's coming from the land, and just a better sense of community.
Steve Testa [00:25:18] What could a local community do that would make a big difference?
Steve Tuckerman [00:25:27] I sound like a bureaucrat, but comprehensive land-use planning, and when you get the land-use planning in there and make sure the communities... There has to be, of course, some type of variances worked into it, but it seems all too common that the variances are basically given out carte blanche in that the variances really are loopholes to the main intent of the regulations. And so that would... Probably be the best thing to do is go ahead and get up a decent set of comprehensive land-use plans, zoning regulations, and then make it very difficult for people to win variances for those those type of projects. And if there's any new development going on that post-development runoff coefficients have to be equal to or less than predevelopment runoff coefficients because, again, stormwater non–point source issues are the biggest things that we're having to deal with in the future.
Steve Testa [00:26:31] Recently, we've had some problems with some flooding down Canal area, and it's my understanding that it is because of so much development and so much pavement. And so I wonder if there's any effort taking place right now to sort of go back and correct some of those errors.
Steve Tuckerman [00:26:51] Yeah, there's there's a lot of efforts to try to go back, but it's a lot more expensive and a lot more difficult than if you have things in place to prevent it from happening. And again, all of that's on the local level. There are no state initiatives other than we give grants for watershed restoration, for wetland restoration and mitigation, which help, but to actually go back and take out parking lots and put in, you know, pervious parking lots or put in rain, rain barrels and stuff like that. There's grants involved, but there is no mandate from the state for that type of thing.
Steve Testa [00:27:29] If the building that's there now and the way that all of this water is controlled now, can this river survive with what's there now?
Steve Tuckerman [00:27:41] It could definitely survive, in my opinion. Could it thrive? I don't think so. And if we continue to go the way that we are right now unchecked, I'm really afraid that we're going to lose all the progress that we've made up to this point. I'm very optimistic in the short term and I'm very pessimistic in the long term when it comes to our water quality in northeast Ohio.
Steve Testa [00:28:06] Can you elaborate a little bit on the pessimism?
Steve Tuckerman [00:28:10] Yeah, again, the the the optimism is that I think we have really good controls on our water quality. And it's going to... It's good right now and it's going to do nothing but continue to get better. The pessimism is that I, I just don't see people willing to sacrifice individual... I won't say rights, but individual lifestyles, for the benefit of the river unless something drastic occurs. Maybe the new generations will change that perception that I have. But I know my generation and older, I think, we're... A lot of us are into me, especially starting with the Reagan era. It seemed like there was a turn from the '60s and '70s where it was more of a a we in what can we do to help other folks. And the '70s or '80s, rather, I think it was a turnabout was me, me, me. What can I get? What can I do for me? You know, and until we change that, I'm very pessimistic.
Steve Testa [00:29:15] I want to go back to the other project where you're talking about the electricity produced in the gorge.
Steve Tuckerman [00:29:23] Mm-hmm.
Steve Testa [00:29:23] And just ask you about really how do you see that working? In other words... Well, first I'll ask you your opinion about what you think might need to be done there or what should be done and then if there's a way that we could sort of bridge having the private electric producer and the water quality.
Steve Tuckerman [00:29:43] Right. First of all, no matter where you get your energy, it's not free. And no matter where you get the energy, there's always environmental consequences, even solar energy when you produce the cells, there's environmental consequences. So no matter what you do, you're going to create some type of environmental harm and you basically have to weigh the harm versus the good you get out of it. And my assessment is that there is really not an awful lot of electricity you can get out of the Cuyahoga River at that location, mainly because the City of Akron pulls a great deal water off of the watershed for drinking water purposes. That water is no longer available. The Clean Water Act mandates that you have to have sufficient water to maintain water quality standards, which in Ohio includes fish and macro invertebrate populations. And when you put those two things in there, you only have a minuscule amount of water during high runoff, basically storm events, that you're going to be able to use to generate electricity. And you look at the amount of power that's generated versus the potential of what that river could be without that dam there, and I think it just pales in comparison. There was a court testimony from a First Energy engineer that the amount of power claimed by the applicant, the person that wants to project, is somewhere, somewhat less than two thousand homes. The First Energy engineer stated that in his opinion, the project as as proposed would power somewhat less than three homes on a yearly basis. So when you look at it that way, there's clearly a problem there. And and again, I think you just have to look at all of the cons and the pros, and I think if somebody looked at it from a, from that standpoint, it's clearly not a project. It's going against the will of the people. Everybody in the area wants to keep the river. They don't think it's worth... Also, they don't think it's worth the price of the electricity, and then if you look at the one of the things that is big in the news right now is the carbon dioxide loading to the atmosphere. And so that's one of the applicant's statements, is that it's going to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. What he doesn't quite understand is that the reservoir itself is actually creating greenhouse gases from production of algae and in decomposition of the algae, and they're actually... Each reservoir is different, so you can't make blanket statements, but there is a possibility that the reservoir itself could be producing more greenhouse gases through methane and carbon dioxide than what's being saved by burning coal for further electricity that they're gaining. So. So that's that's my process or my belief basically is just looking at the balance sheet and it just doesn't make sense.
Steve Testa [00:32:46] A lot of the projects we've talked about so far that you've been involved with were dam removal, free flowing in the water. I wonder if there's another type of project that in fact you've worked on that has been self-gratifying or in fact good for the river.
Steve Tuckerman [00:33:02] Yeah, just the the mundane bureaucratic work of monitoring and issuing permits and keeping track on the wastewater treatment plants at the city-owned, municipal-owned wastewater treatment plants. Again, when I was first coming up in the business, the wastewater treatment plants for the places where the dregs of the city went. If if you were having discipline problems or you had any number of issues with the city, you probably ended up with a wastewater treatment plant because it was looked upon as the degrading job and nobody wanted to go there. And again, the turnaround has been remarkable. Most people now have ad
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