Myths surrounding Cuyahoga River fire 35 years ago stoked country's environmental movement
Water quality of river—portrayed as so polluted it burned—actually was much improved
Once upon a time, June 22, 1969, a river started on fire. So begins the historical event that has turned into the fable of the Cuyahoga River burning.
Fable? Yes, according to Jonathan H. Adler, Case Western Reserve University law professor and director of the Environmental Law Center at the Case Law School, because the river portrayed as so polluted it would burn was, in fact, well on the way to improving its water quality.
And fish, a bellwether of good water quality, were reported again swimming in the river at the time of the fire.
In his 57-page paper for the Fordham Environmental Law Journal in 2002, he puts to rest many of the misconceptions that have kept Clevelanders blushing over the national embarrassment of their river burning. He also sets the stage and describes what the federal government was doing at the time to clean up the environment.
“The earlier, more intense fires are symbolic of the fact that the Cuyahoga—and other industrial rivers—were at greater risk of fires in the previous decades,” stated Adler.
According to the Case environmental law professor, national funding was inadequate at the time. Also hampering the clean-up process were state laws—and inaction to enforce them for decades—enabling certain industries to continue to pollute with immunity against prosecution and the less civic-minded continued to dump waste into the waterway.
Cleveland’s hands had been tied where state laws overrode local authority and did not allow the city to take action against the polluters.
The federal government had the River and Harbors Act of 1899 to grapple with pollution, but the general focus of the law was to keep waterways navigable for river traffic. The law barred disposal of wastes but not all liquid wastes, which comprised most of the water’s pollutants.
“Revisiting the context and history of the legendary Cuyahoga River fire reveals a complex story about the causes and consequences of various institutions’ choices in environmental law,” writes Adler.
The fact is that the Cuyahoga River caught fire from debris that collected in the crooked river’s bend. The short-lived fire was out before the local press reached the scene to record images of its blaze. But it was a fire that followed ones in 1868, 1883, 1887, 1912, 1922, 1936, 1941, 1948 and the most devastating of all—the 1952 blaze that resulted in nearly $1.5 millions in damage.
Nor was the Cuyahoga River the only fire to burn during that era. Pollutants fueled fires on a river into the Baltimore Harbor, the Buffalo River in upstate New York and the Rouge River in Michigan.
What set the Cuyahoga apart from other fires is that the nation’s attention had begun to focus on the environment, and the Cleveland fire fueled the symbolism of the earth’s need for repair and the necessary federal regulation to do so, said Adler. The fire led to the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972.
Adler also laid the historical groundwork of how Cleveland had passed a $100-million bond issue in 1968 to clean up the water (the federal government spent less than $160 million for environmental clean-ups throughout the nation), established the Cuyahoga River Basin Water Quality Committee in 1963 to deal with pollution, enlisted local industries to voluntarily curtail pollution and in early 1969 established the Clean Water Task Force to periodically sweep the river and to collect oil and debris. Cleveland also had spent $30 million to build new sewage treatment facilities from 1967-70.
“Cleveland made significant strides toward environmental improvements in 1968 and 1969,” writes Adler.
Despite the Cleveland area’s efforts, a 1968 federal report listed the Cuyahoga River as one of the most polluted rivers in the nation, said Adler.
Adler concludes that like all good fables, this one contains some “useful truths” that “can inform an unending search for more perfect institutions of environmental protection.”
About Case Western Reserve University
Case is among the nation's leading research institutions. Founded in 1826 and shaped by the unique merger of the Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University, Case is distinguished by its strengths in education, research, service, and experiential learning. Located in Cleveland, Case offers nationally recognized programs in the Arts and Sciences, Dental Medicine, Engineering, Law, Management, Medicine, Nursing, and Social Work. http://www.case.edu.