A closer look at the EPA and Cleveland's connection

A photo of this 1952 fire on the Cuyahoga River accompanied a 1969 Time magazine article about the polluted waterway, igniting national concern for the environment. Photo courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

In my last column, I wrote about the Environmental Protection Agency, its history, and role in our lives today. I have been reading more about the EPA and its history, and wanted to revisit the topic again this week. Think of this a Part 2 of the EPA column. (Part 1 is available at wbvobserver.com/read/columns/the-green-report.)

I want to address Cleveland’s role in the modern environmental movement, including the establishment of the EPA and the Clean Water Act. It’s no coincidence that the first Earth Day was in 1970, the EPA was established in 1970, and the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969. As I wrote before, the modern environmental movement was developing in the early 1960s as the result of many events, mainly Rachel Carson’s book "Silent Spring" in 1962 and other significant environmental problems such as heavy pollution in our nation’s rivers that ran through large cities. ("Silent Spring" is available at the Westlake and Bay Village libraries; a documentary on Carson will air Tuesday, Jan. 24, 8 p.m., on WVIZ/PBS.)

As I started researching this column, I was surprised to learn that the infamous June 1969 Cuyahoga River fire was the last fire in the river. The river had been used for industrial dumping for decades and decades, and had caught fire at least a dozen times between 1936 and 1969. In fact, the 1969 fire barely made the news in Cleveland, let alone nationally. However, Time magazine decided to run a story on the fire, further igniting the national concern for the environment.

The picture of the river fire that Time magazine ran in 1969 was not from the June 1969 fire, it was from a larger fire in 1952. Prior to the 1960s, the pollution in the river was viewed by residents as a necessary consequence of the city’s booming industry. As quoted from the Time story, the river “oozes, rather than flows.” The EPA didn’t exist yet, and industries did not have any regulations about how, where, when and why they could dump their waste, so they just dumped it into the river.

As the 1960s went on, residents changed their tune and ironically in 1968 (the year before the 1969 fire) passed a $100 million bond initiative for the Cuyahoga’s cleanup. Consequently, the small fire in 1969 was the last fire in a river that was on the brink of being saved. However, this small fire became a symbol of environmental degradation. Cleveland’s mayor at the time, Carl Stokes, held a press conference the following day and testified before Congress urging federal involvement in pollution control. The news coverage and subsequent outrage by citizens played a major role in the establishment of the EPA. Carl Stokes’ brother, Louis Stokes, was a U.S. representative at the time, and the brothers’ advocacy played a role in the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972. Since the $100 million bond initiative in 1968, local industries and the Northeast Ohio Sewer District have spent $3.5 billion to reduce sewage and industrial waste pollution. 

Cleveland is not the only city that had such major pollution in its river; the timing of the 1969 river fire was just right to add spark to the growing momentum of national concern for protecting the environment. Cleveland, in its river’s notoriety, played a major role nationally in the federal establishment of environmental standards and regulations to prevent the further degradation of natural resources. The cleanup efforts and industrial regulations have worked, and today the Cuyahoga is home to more than 60 different species of fish, as well as beavers, herons, and bald eagles.

So, the next time you hear someone call Cleveland “mistake by the lake” you should first of all ask them to join us in the current millennium because that term is ancient and frankly someone who says it sounds like an idiot … and next you can answer by saying “the mistake by the lake ignited our national concern for the environment, playing a role in the establishment of the EPA and Clean Water Act.”

This is something to be proud of, Clevelanders. We have come a LONG way since 1969. The fact that the river is thriving is a testament to not only our city, but our federal government for taking a stand against industrial pollution and protecting our essential natural resources.

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Volume 9, Issue 1, Posted 10:12 AM, 01.10.2017