The Day the River Caught Fire

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
— George Santayana, Spanish Philosoper

Recently the news reported that the current Administration may slash the EPA workforce by as much as 50% and reduce its budget.  This intent to dismantle EPA is reminder of the short memories on the awful practices that once left this country with extensive water and air pollution.  As a reminder to those who wish to dismantle EPA, its mission is to "Protect human health and the environment".  Years ago, before the Environmental Protection Agency was created, it was common for our streams and air to be polluted.  People suffered health effects from the pollution and there were many toxic dump sites around the country.   

I grew up in Elyria, Ohio during the sixties and seventies.  Elyria is near Cleveland, Ohio and like many cities in the Midwest we had an abundance of auto plants and support related industries.  Our fathers worked at the local Ford or General Motors auto plant, US Steel, chemical plants and casting companies. My dad worked at Bendix Westinghouse, which made air brakes that were shipped to truck plants around the U.S and Canada.  

My parents left West Virginia in the early 1950’s and its poor coal mining towns to raise a family in an area of the country that had jobs.  These were good industrial jobs supporting the auto industry.  My father never made more than $15,000 a year but he raised 4 kids and launched them all to either the military or to college.   

Every single day, the industrial plants in northern Ohio - in places like Elyria - discharged their waste in the rivers to be carried away to Lake Erie or downstream to another town. Their smoke stacks sent particles out into the air. Sometimes those black particles covered cars or dirtied laundry hanging to dry.  My parents weren’t bothered by the environmental impacts that industry caused because that was the trade off for a better life than the coal mines in West Virginia.  They wanted opportunities for their children and the factory jobs provided that.   

The rivers that flowed through our town and in other Midwestern towns were polluted and we just accepted that as a fact of life.  As kids we were warned to stay out of the rivers, especially the main river in town, called the Black River, that many industries discharged into.   Sometimes it smelled and it was always, always dark brown or streaked with colors.   

The City of Cleveland sits on the southeastern edge of Lake Erie and was known for its industrial and shipping history. The Cuyahoga River runs through Cleveland and it too was laden with decades of pollution.  Factories routinely discharged heavy metal wastes, sewage, chemicals and paint. The river even had smelly oil slicks floating on it from local refineries.   

Cuyahoga River Pollution, 1969

Cuyahoga River Pollution, 1969

 Early on a Sunday morning in June 1969, an oil slick on the river caught fire. Local fire departments and tug boats responded and doused the fire.  A nearby rail bridge was heavily damaged by this event.  This fire hardly made local news since the river had burned before.   An earlier and much larger fire in 1952 had caused $1.5 million dollars of damage.

Cleveland Plain Dealer Article

Cleveland Plain Dealer Article

 While this fire in 1969 was not the first or the worst of fires on the Cuyahoga River, it was the first time a photo appeared in Time Magazine almost a month later.   That national publicity and subsequent notoriety for Cleveland shined a light on the health and environmental hazards in rivers across the nation.  It was the springboard for Carl Stokes, the first African American Mayor of Cleveland, and his brother Louis Stokes, a U.S. Representative, could use to in calling for more federal oversight to control pollution.  This fire and the advocacy of the Stokes brothers played a role in the passage of the federal Clean Waters Act of 1972.  

The first Earth Day was celebrated 10 months after the fire on April 22, 1970.  EPA became a federal agency on December 2, 1970 and Congress passed the Clean Waters Act in 1972.  Again, let's not forget our past and that EPA's mission is to "Protect human health and the environment".