1969: Cuyahoga River Catches Fire



Image: Plain Dealer

Forty years ago, Cleveland's Cuyahoga River caught fire. It was not the first time a river (even the Cuyahoga) caught fire, but like Apollo 8's earthrise photos, it became an important event in the raising of awareness of environmental issues in America. "The burning river mobilized the nation and became a rallying point for passage of the Clean Water Act," and inspired Randy Newman's Burn On. It was important enough that even 35 years after the event, the National Review felt it necessary to deride it as a myth.
Cuyahoga River burning: in 1952 Image Ohio Historical Society

Time Magazine called the river that "oozes rather than flows" and the late night talk show hosts made fun of it. But now the river has come back:

"The fire was a bad thing, sure, but some good came out of it in the end," said Jane Goodman, a South Euclid councilwoman and spokeswoman for the river planning group. "Many people see this fire as being a catalyst for the federal Clean Water Act and other environmental laws.

"And those laws went a long way toward bringing the river back."

When they checked the river at the time, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency found 10 sick gizzard chad. Period. Now, according to Cleveland.Com:

When the EPA crews went back last summer -- after hearing unexpectedly high unofficial counts from Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District officials who also tally aquatic life in the river -- they found 40 different fish species in the river, including steelhead trout, northern pike and other clean-water fish.

"It's been an absolutely amazing recovery," said Steve Tuckerman of the Ohio EPA's Twinsburg office, who made those first reports in 1984. "I wouldn't have believed that this section of the river would have this dramatic of a turnaround in my career, but it has."

One can look at the Cuyahoga and see how much has changed, or at the Emory River after the TVA sludge spill last week to see how little has changed. What is clear from both events is that it takes strong environmental protection legislation and government agencies committed to enforcing the rules to clean these messes up and ensure that such disasters don't keep happening.

More on the TVA
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2.6 Million Cubic Yards of Toxic Coal Ash Slurry Released in Tennessee Dike Burst
Massive Tennessee Toxic Ash Spill May Have Been Prevented by Fixes Rejected by TVA Officials

Lyrics of Burn On by Randy Newman:

Cleveland city of light city of magic
Cleveland city of light you're calling me
Cleveland, even now I can remember
'Cause the Cuyahoga River
Goes smokin' through my dreams

Burn on, big river, burn on
Burn on, big river, burn on
Now the Lord can make you tumble
And the Lord can make you turn
And the Lord can make you overflow
But the Lord can't make you burn

Tags: Pollution | Wayback Machine