Celebrate the 50th anniversary of the fire on the river!

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the last fire in the Cuyahoga River, which occurred in 1969. The 50th anniversary is a cause for celebration. Why? Because that infamous fire helped spur the modern environmental movement. That fire initiated a response that includes the establishment of the EPA and the Clean Water Act. Furthermore, the first Earth Day occurred in 1970, and that’s no coincidence either.

The infamous June 1969 Cuyahoga fire was indeed 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) a $100 million bond initiative for the Cuyahoga’s cleanup was passed. Consequently, the small fire in 1969 was the last fire in a river that was on the brink of being saved. Even so, 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 Environmental Protection Agency. 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. The notorious fire on the river helped ignite the protection of our water and environment that it is cause for celebration.

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. So, this year, drive down to the Cuyahoga and bask in its glory knowing how far it’s come and what a huge role it’s had in helping out the environment of the United States as a whole!  

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Volume 11, Issue 5, Posted 9:53 AM, 03.05.2019