A cold drizzle covers East Cleveland on a January afternoon, and that's a blessing for Willie Morrow: Rain helps tamp down the fumes oozing out of the dump across the street.
"It's gonna be hell when the weather gets nice," he says with a gentle drawl.
From behind a pair of bifocals, Morrow's glance indicts the four-story mountain of dilapidated housing materials that rises behind his neighborhood, and he can do nothing but sigh, his breath condensing briefly.
It was 43 years ago that Morrow moved into his home on Noble Road. His front porch was for some time a gathering spot for neighbors and friends, conversation unfolding below too many setting suns to remember. Now the porch boasts a vista of rolling foothills of drywall and tires, fiberglass and the jagged remains of refrigerators. In the heat of summer, he says, the gym-bag stench of demolition debris is just too much to bear. Morrow doesn't spend much time on his porch these days.
Three years ago, former Mayor Gary Norton and city council unanimously authorized Arco Recycling to buy the property, tucked immediately behind homes on Noble and Euclid Avenue, from the city for $125,000. Norton repeatedly insisted that the sale was necessary to cover impending payroll shortfalls, what with perpetual budget deficits and annual, ignominious recognition from the state auditor as a city under fiscal emergency. Within a few months, Norton would be begging the state to take "a leap of faith" and issue a loan to East Cleveland.
That loan wouldn't come and East Cleveland's financial problems grew. So did Arco's mountain.
The company "dumped and dumped and dumped," as one neighbor says, and for nearly three years the residents of Noble Road watched with concern. They started tracking the dump truck deliveries and their own phone calls, rarely answered or returned, to local and state politicians. Their complaints piled up like the asbestos in their backyards.
All along, city officials have insisted that there are no hazardous materials on the site; that there is no sulfuric smell wafting among the row of three-story houses; that, when it comes down it, what's happening on Noble Road is a great and important improvement to the community.
"Those are adjectives they use," Morrow says. "Behind those adjectives is poison."
Just last month, Jim Riffle of Hudson-based Auburn Environmental gave evidence to those claims. He released a 37-page report that details the array of hazardous chemicals found on the vinyl siding and rooftops of garages and homes lining Noble Road. Among them: hydrogen sulfide, the byproduct of gypsum drywall materials left out in the rain. Inhaling that stuff can produce an encyclopedia of health problems, ranging from eye irritation and nausea to paroxysmal convulsions and death.
Riffle's report coincided with the state's own investigations. On Jan. 17, the Ohio EPA gave Arco's owners two weeks to comply with an order to shut down operations. As of Feb. 6, Arco has not filed compliance paperwork, and the alps of construction and demolition debris have not decreased in size. (From the street, though, one can watch employees coating the heaps with "fines," or woodchip materials, obscuring what's beneath.) With no public compliance to date, the Ohio Attorney General's office is now getting involved as an enforcing agent. [Ed. note: Arco has since filed an appeal with the Ohio EPA.]
Nothing new for the Noble Road set: Residents are still left wondering why the city hasn't stepped in to stand down the mysterious company that's polluting its neighborhood.
With the city reeling in the aftermath of a mayoral recall and tilting toward near-total financial collapse, Arco Recycling has become a proxy in a long-standing feud over the direction of East Cleveland. After a while, you hear enough people complain about the toxic dump and you begin to wonder if they're talking about the Arco facility or City Hall.
The Arco Recycling folks arrived in East Cleveland two years into the city's "fiscal emergency" with the state auditor's office (continuing to this day) and with little to no inspection from a council that spent its Monday meetings at that time arguing about its public-access television channel. The dump purchase slipped by almost unnoticed.
A man identifying himself as Mike Riley appeared before an East Cleveland City Council executive session on March 3, 2014, claiming to be the owner of Ohio Rock Industries.
Ohio Rock LLC is registered in Ohio by a man named Michael E. George. (Multiple sources have insisted to Scene that Michael E. George is an alias of George Michael Riley Sr., the operator of Red Rock Services, a local demolition company in East Cleveland, also known simply as Mike Riley.) Arco Recycling itself did not yet exist; it would be registered with the state more than a month later.
Riley was pressed by councilman Nathaniel Martin that day on what, precisely, would be recycled at the property the city was considering selling. Riley responded, according to meeting minutes, that "only construction debris that was non-hazardous" would be recycled on the premises.
The next day, March 4, 2014, city council convened for a full session and vote on the sale. Martin asked Norton "what is going on" just prior to the vote. The mayor explained that "this will be the site for a recycling business." And with that vigorous debate and inspection, the sale of 1705 Noble Rd. was unanimously approved.
Among the contract legalese, the sale declared that the purchaser, in addition to "recycling" housing materials from Cuyahoga County Land Bank demolitions, would also be "demolishing the dilapidated structures [on the former General Electric site], remediating environmental matters to the extent required by law, and preparing the property for development." Additionally, the city was promised 30 local jobs.
Noble Road residents, whose requests to see Arco's permits and records have gone unfulfilled, tell Scene that there is no such recycling occurring at the facility. The housing debris looms over the homes lining its perimeter, and there's only been more of it as the years have gone by. Records of complaints to the Ohio EPA and the Cleveland Division of Air Quality stretch back almost to Arco's opening date in July 2014. And the matter of remediating the environment on site? Nope.
As recently as November 2016, some council members were still trying to figure out what is really happening at 1705 Noble Rd. "Within the contract, he's supposed to have beautified this property by July 2016," says council member Joie Graham. She was referring to a 2003 city ordinance that essentially locks in city land bank property transactions, mandating that they are held to certain standards within two years of any sale.
But here's where things went awry: On July 14, 2014, Norton signed a "satisfaction and release of mortgage" form that dropped the property from the jurisdiction of the Cuyahoga County fiscal officer. Riley — or George or Mike or whoever is running the Arco Recycling facility — was no longer bound to beautify it. And no one has.
Across the street from Willie Morrow lives Harry Drummonds. Been here since 1973. His property abuts the fencing around Arco Recycling, and he's propped a ladder against his garage so that curious visitors can take in the sprawling vista of the Arco grounds. On several visits to Drummonds' place in January, Scene watched employees or contractors toiling beneath the piles of debris.
Drummonds says that, most days, a cavalcade of dump trucks begins arriving around 5:30 a.m., like the worst sort of alarm clock. "Day after day," he adds.
According to neighbors up and down Noble Road, many of whom have long documented their communications with city and state officials, there has never been any official interaction between Arco Recycling ownership and the residents. (A man who's been identified to Scene as George Michael Riley Sr. is seen in several videos on YouTube caught up in extremely heated arguments with East Cleveland residents through the chain-link fence.)
"For over two years, we've been held hostage on our properties," Drummonds says. He's slumped onto a squat stack of three plastic lawn chairs in his driveway; he only spends time outside these days to bring reporters and neighbors to the property line. It's not like those chairs are being used for relaxation, he says. "That is a luxury, not a necessity, but they cut off all avenues to that. I bet you the director of the Ohio EPA sits in his backyard. I bet you he barbecues with his family."
A central contention for the past few years is that all this stuff was obvious to anyone with functioning senses; you didn't need a canary to know something was wrong. Why it took so long to get action from state leaders (to say nothing of the city's indifference, many argue) is difficult to understand.
In the summer of 2014, the Ohio EPA approved three air pollution control permits that "require the facility to limit fugitive dust emissions from the sorting line, storage piles, paved roadways and parking lots," according to Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler. "The permits also prohibit the processing of any regulated asbestos-containing materials." Facilities like Arco need state-issued permits to be able to do the sort of work that involves potentially dubious materials.
The invitation for Riffle to study the area was not without cause; Arco had been ignoring the permit requirements. Government agencies were quietly taking note, too.
On May 19, 2015, for example, three representatives from the Cleveland Division of Air Quality visited Arco and noted that "some fugitive dust was observed." According to the report, Riley told the representatives that the company does not maintain all of their permit-required records. On June 11, the CDAQ reported that "it is highly probable that asbestos is contained in the debris piles." The very next day, a CDAQ investigator reported that "asbestos is located at the site."
In June 2015, the CDAQ and the Ohio EPA issued a notice of violation against Arco ownership.
Soon, though, with no real action resulting from that notice, and at the urging of Noble Road residents, high-ranking public officials began asking questions. Sen. Sherrod Brown and U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, for example, communicated directly with the Ohio EPA's Butler.
On Sept. 15, 2015, Butler wrote to Fudge that, "No asbestos violations have been identified in past inspections."
Fudge shot back in October 2015: "While test results for asbestos may be negative," she wrote, "I worry that the Arco site may pose additional health and safety risks to nearby residents that cannot be adequately reflected in an environmental report. This includes the presence of other potential pollutants, sleeplessness due to noise pollution, dirt and soot which coats the neighborhood homes and cars, and the constant stress brought about by the site's operation. Many area residents have even taken to wearing surgical masks during their daily routines to prevent excessive dust inhalation."
Meantime, the dump truck procession rolled on.
As 2016 came to a close, former mayor Eric Brewer returned to his old city and decided to get involved. Drummonds, a longtime friend of Brewer, joined with other neighbors to get something on the books in their fight against Arco.
Brewer and the group contacted Jim Riffle of Auburn Environmental — the guy who gets called to do chemical testing for Fortune 500 companies — and brought him up the road to East Cleveland. (Riffle lives in Boston Heights.)
"I thought the place looked more like a landfill than a recycling center," Riffle told Scene when asked about his first impressions. "The waste streams seemed to be co-mingled, where everything just seems to be mixed together, instead of segregated." He listed what he saw: old building materials, roofing materials, sheet rock.
Using standard "dust sampling" methodology, Riffle's work turned up a whole spectrum of nasty stuff, ranging from hydrogen sulfide to fiberglass, concrete dust, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, chromium and various other toxins lining the outside of Drummonds' house and garage.
"I get involved in projects like this all the time, where something is affecting either an industrial, commercial or residential property," Riffle says. "The unique thing about this is the close proximity of the Arco site to residential properties. The close proximity of the site to residential neighborhoods is concerning. And the sheer volume and height of the piles is a major concern, because any time you get wind that blows across that construction debris or blows any gas off that landfill it's obviously going to end up on houses or even in houses."
Riffle's report comes at the tail end of two years of Ohio EPA and Cleveland Division of Air Quality investigative reports. Both his work and the Ohio EPA order lend Noble Road's residents some semblance of public awareness beyond their own city. Multiple residents compared this plight to the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, which played out quietly before receiving a wellspring of national attention, perhaps too little, too late. The New York Times labeled Flint a prime example of "environmental racism," "the result of poverty and segregation that has relegated many blacks and other racial minorities to some of the most industrialized or dilapidated environments." Similar phrasing came up in many conversations in East Cleveland.
"This has been a horrendous experience so far," one neighbor told us (many residents didn't want their names used in this or other stories). "I'm a little bit leery now. I don't really know who's running this organization. And I don't want to start running my mouth. I'm not a scared person, but at this point I'm beginning to feel that way."
Their fears might not be unfounded. On Jan. 18, according to a Boston Heights police report filed by Riffle, two men were seen standing next to a black BMW that was parked in his driveway. Riffle "made contact with the men and they took off running."
"I've been advised not to talk about that," Riffle tells Scene.
On Jan. 17, 2017, with news of Brewer's involvement and Riffle's report marinating in the local news cycle, the Ohio EPA issued an order for Arco Recycling to stop accepting materials and to begin shutting down operations within two weeks.
"Arco was not operating consistently as a recycler of this material, which is an unregulated activity, and therefore is considered to be illegal open dumping, and this is why Ohio EPA acted quickly to shut the facility down and demand it be cleaned up," Ohio EPA spokesperson Heidi Griesmer tells Scene.
But residents knew better than to be optimistic. The deadline passed without so much as an acknowledgement from Arco.
"To comply with the order, Arco needed to cease acceptance and disposal of [construction and demolition debris] at the facility and complete the removal of all processed and unprocessed [construction and demolition debris] in a lawful manner," Griesmer says. "It also needed to provide documentation of compliance by Jan. 31, 2017. Arco is no longer taking material but they failed to provide documentation of compliance. The case has been referred to the Ohio Attorney General's office for enforcement."
Locally, East Cleveland City Council is stuck in the same disarray that's been present for years. Norton was recalled on Dec. 6, 2016, along with former council president Thomas Wheeler (in whose ward Arco operates). That advanced Councilman Brandon King to the position of mayor. The remaining council members appointed two residents to fill the vacant seats, but King soon overrode those appointments and brought in his own choices. Council has yet to issue a formal resolution on the present state or future of the Noble Road facility.
For now, residents continue to debate how to take back their neighborhood.
"It's sad that any citizen would have to go through what we've gone through," Drummonds says, the dull throb of heavy machinery backdropping his voice. "It's an assassination attempt on my family and neighbors. The people who put dump sites in a neighborhood don't give a damn about human life."
After Brewer lit up Facebook with long, detailed op-ed-style pieces on the Noble Road situation, reporters from the Plain Dealer, Cleveland 19 News and WCPN converged on the story. The Ohio EPA order hit email inboxes across Northeast Ohio. Riffle's report underscored the dangers lurking in the neighborhood. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine was tapped for assistance.
In many ways, there's more action than ever on the problem. In other ways, Morrow says, it's a lot of talk. And the neighborhood is almost talked out by this point.
On Jan. 23, Cleveland Heights' Councilman Michael Ungar insisted his city become more active in efforts to completely shut down the Arco Recycling facility. Certain neighborhoods in Cleveland Heights are within a few thousand feet of the property. "Noble Road" means a lot of things these days, and it's not just confined to Noble Road.
Cleveland Heights' Mayor Cheryl Stephens is also the director of acquisitions, dispositions and development for the Cuyahoga County Land Bank. She told a Cleveland.com reporter that, "This was sold to me by the mayor of East Cleveland. And I'm very concerned also."
Reached by Scene and asked about that quote, Stephens said that she would get back to us. She did not.
And so despite the Ohio attorney general now stepping into the years-long struggle, cause for celebration is scarce on Noble Road. Drummonds told a Plain Dealer reporter on Jan. 17, "I am so elated, I could dance in the street on Noble Road." When Scene met him in his backyard just three days later, elation was in short supply.
"They dump and they dump and they dump," he says, visibly frustrated. "They don't recycle a damn thing."
On Jan. 27, he and Morrow joined their neighbors and watched about 20 local residents gather on the corner of Euclid Avenue and Noble Road. A Pan-African flag flapped in the cold rain, and an inverted American flag stretched across the view of passing motorists.
Devin Branch, appointed to East Cleveland City Council in December and since kicked off by Mayor Brandon King, joined the demonstration and march. As we walked down Noble Road to once again congregate at Drummonds' place, Branch explained that the Ohio EPA order is, if anything, just the beginning.
"We have to remain vigilant," Branch says. "We have to remember that there's a huge, huge journey between now and the actual completion of the removal of this dump. We have to make sure that we insist on the hasty removal of this dump, but in a manner that protects the health and welfare of the people of the city of East Cleveland and the people of surrounding communities."
Across the street, the foundation beneath Morrow's house has slipped noticeably in the past few years, he points out. His front door used to glide open each day after work; now, he has to wriggle the thing out of it off-kilter frame whenever he comes or goes. He says the vibrations from the trucks have disturbed the structural integrity of buildings up and down Noble Road.
There's a whole spectrum of problems that rest outside the view of places like downtown Cleveland and, much closer, the booming expansion of University Circle. Morrow says he's seen seagulls skiffing across the lowlands of the dump, seeking out what must only be the presence of food. Last year, he says, neighbors reported coyotes in the area. Rats converge on the neighborhood in the warmer months, and the warmer months will be here soon.
Ballparking the timeline ahead, Morrow says it'll probably take another two years to get rid of the dump, if they start now. And then, he asks, "What about all the toxic shit over there?"
"A whole lotta hell gonna break loose. Everybody is running scared," Morrow says. "We don't even sit on our front porches in the summer anymore. We can't. We can't take it. We do not enjoy our homes, because of all this crap that's going down. We've been after our own city ever since they approved this, and a lot of us have been sick over the years.
"All you need is a fucking fire over there. You get a fire over there, and it's over. This city don't even have [fire] trucks."[Correction: A reference to 2003 legislation pertaining to the East Cleveland Land Reutilization Program mistakenly referred to the Cuyahoga County Land Bank; the Cuyahoga County Land Bank was formed in 2009.]