Yelling “Fire” in a Crowded River: The Cuyahoga Story at 50

The Cuyahoga on fire. . . in 1952.

As mentioned in our podcast with Jonathan Adler yesterday, today is the 50th anniversary of the infamous Cuyahoga River fire in Cleveland. The fire continues to be a prominent and compelling image of man’s relationship to the environment. Immortalized in song (Randy Newman’s “Burn On” and R.E.M’s “Cuyahoga”), and fodder for countless Cleveland-bashing jokes from standup comics, the incongruously short-lived fire (it was put out in about 20 minutes, causing a mere $50,000 in damages to a railroad trestle) burns on in memory. “You would think that people would forget about it after all this time—but no,” said Jim White, executive director of the Cuyahoga River Community Planning Organization, in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer;  “I had a visitor here from Russia recently and the first thing he wanted to see was where the river burned.”

Much of what we know and think about the Cuyahoga River fire is myth, as Alder noted in the most detailed scholarly survey of the episode, and the deeper story about the Cuyahoga offers important lessons about familiar patterns of environmental thought that need revising to meet new circumstances. Adler wrote in “Fables of the Cuyahoga” that

“The conventional narratives, of a river abandoned by its local community, of water pollution at its zenith, of conventional legal doctrines impotent in the face of environmental harms, and of a beneficent federal government rushing in to save the day, is misleading in many respects.

“For northeast Ohio, and indeed for many industrialized areas, burning rivers were nothing new, and the 1969 fire was less severe than prior Cuyahoga conflagrations. It was a little fire on a long-polluted river already embarked on the road to recovery.”

The Cuyahoga and other rivers had experienced more severe fires repeatedly over the decades stretching back into the 19thcentury; indeed, a 1936 fire on the Cuyahoga River burned for five days. Over in Chicago, waste from the meatpacking industry so fouled an urban arm of the Chicago River that it became known as “Bubbly Creek.”  Upton Sinclair memorialized it in his muckraking expose of the meatpacking industry, The Jungle:

“Bubbly Creek” is an arm of the Chicago River, and forms the southern boundary of the yards: all the drainage of the square mile of packing houses empties into it, so that it is really a great open sewer a hundred or two feet wide. One long arm of it is blind, and the filth stays there forever and a day. The grease and chemicals that are poured into it undergo all sorts of strange transformations, which are the cause of its name; it is constantly in motion, as if huge fish were feeding in it, or great leviathans disporting themselves in its depths. Bubbles of carbonic acid gas will rise to the surface and burst, and make rings two or three feet wide. Here and there the grease and filth have caked solid, and the creek looks like a bed of lava; chickens walk about on it, feeding, and many times an unwary stranger has started to stroll across, and vanished temporarily. The packers used to leave the creek that way, till every now and then the surface would catch on fire and burn furiously, and the fire department would have to come and put it out.

By 1969 local efforts to improve water quality in Cleveland were starting to make headway but were ironically impeded by bureaucratic red tape. As Adler explained:

Cleveland had embarked on a long and costly cleanup effort before the Cuyahoga became a national symbol. Subsequent federal efforts received more attention – and far more credit– but it appears the tide was turning well before Congress enacted the 1972 Clean Water Act. One problem Cleveland faced was that the Cuyahoga was treated as an industrial stream, and state permits inhibited local clean up efforts. Public nuisance actions and enforcement of local pollution ordinances, in particular, were precluded by state regulation, while federal laws protecting commercially navigable waterways went largely unenforced.”

Local efforts to reverse the Cuyahoga’s pollution prior to the 1969 fire included a $100 million bond issue to finance river clean up, litigation against polluters, and greater enforcement of state water pollution control statutes—measures which found much of their support from the Cleveland business community, while the federal government provided “not one dime” of assistance despite the Cuyahoga’s role as a major polluter of Lake Erie, a major interstate water body.  (Cleveland had also enacted one of the toughest local air pollution laws before the Federal Clean Air Act.)

The Cuyahoga River fire of 1969, along with the contemporaneous Santa Barbara oil spill, is said to have been an impetus behind the passage of the federal Clean Water Act and other landmark legislation near the time of the first Earth Day the following year and the beginning of serious efforts to clean up our air, water, and other resources.  As Adler shows, this conventional narrative has numerous defects, omissions, and counterintuitive conclusions—points that other scholars have amplified in recent years. The enhanced Federal role in environmental protection and the founding of the EPA in 1970 are certainly important and have had large positive effects, but a balanced view will keep in mind additional dynamic factors in the story—especially whether the top-down model of the 1970s should still be the default model for environmental protection in the 21st century.

Meanwhile, how is the Cuyahoga River doing 50 years later?  The Cleveland Plain-Dealer reported almost a decade ago that the Ohio State EPA began assessing fish populations in the Akron-to-Cleveland stretch of the Cuyahoga in the 1980s, their field biologists would often come back with a count of 10 fish or less. Not 10 species, but 10 actual fish total.  But when biologists visited the same stretch in 2008, they found 40 different species now thriving in the Cuyahoga, including steelhead trout and northern pike.  Steve Tuckerman of Ohio’s State EPA told the Plain-Dealer: “It’s been an absolutely amazing recovery.  I wouldn’t have believed that this section of the river would have this dramatic of a turnaround in my career, but it has.” Indeed, the Cuyahoga is expected this year to meet the Federal Clean Water Act’s stringent standard for healthy habitat for aquatic life.  Quite a contrast from the early years after the 1969 fire, when a federal report found that “The lower Cuyahoga has no visible signs of life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes.”

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