The fable of the burning river, 45 years later

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On the morn­ing of June 22, 1969, oil and debris that had col­lect­ed on the sur­face of the Cuya­hoga Riv­er as wound its way through Cleve­land caught fire. The sto­ry attract­ed nation­al atten­tion, and was fea­tured in a report on the nation’s envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems in the August 1 Time mag­a­zine. The fire illus­trat­ed just how bad the nation’s envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems had become by 1969. As then-Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency Admin­is­tra­tor Lisa Jack­son com­ment­ed in 2011, the fire was evi­dence of “the almost unimag­in­able health and envi­ron­men­tal threats” from water pol­lu­tion of the time. After all, as one envi­ron­men­tal activist put it, “when rivers are on fire, you know things are bad.”

The image of a riv­er on fire, pub­lished by Time, was seared into the nation’s emerg­ing envi­ron­men­tal con­scious­ness and fueled the grow­ing demand for greater envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tion. The nation cel­e­brat­ed the first Earth Day in 1970 and in 1972 Con­gress passed the fed­er­al Clean Water Act. Today the nation’s waters are much clean­er, even if some prob­lems remain, and many cred­it the CWA with elim­i­nat­ing the fire threat on the Cuya­hoga and pre­vent­ing oth­er rivers from befalling a sim­i­lar fate. (If only Chi­na had sim­i­lar pro­tec­tions.) One recent com­men­tary on the 40th anniver­sary of the Clean Water Act was titled “Why Rivers no Longer Burn.”

The prob­lem with the sto­ry of the 1969 Cuya­hoga Riv­er fire is that so much of what we think we know about this sto­ry just is not so. Start with the famous image pub­lished by Time mag­a­zine ref­er­enced above. It is a pic­ture of a fire on the Cuya­hoga, but its not a pic­ture of the fable 1969 fire. Rather, it’s from a fire 17 years ear­li­er, in 1952. Time didn’t run a pic­ture of the 1969 fire because there weren’t any.

The real­i­ty is that the 1969 Cuya­hoga fire was not a sym­bol of how bad con­di­tions on the nation’s rivers could become, but how bad they had once been. The 1969 fire was not the first time an indus­tri­al riv­er in the Unit­ed States had caught on fire, but the last. Through­out the late 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, riv­er fires were com­mon. There were at least 13 on the Cuya­hoga alone, but rivers in Bal­ti­more, Detroit, Buf­fa­lo, Philadel­phia, and else­where had fires as well.

Fires were cost­ly and dan­ger­ous, so action was tak­en long before the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment got involved. In Cleve­land, efforts had been made to reduce the fire threat on and off in the first part of the 20th cen­tu­ry, but by the time of the 1952 fire — a major con­fla­gra­tion — local civic and busi­ness lead­ers had had enough, and they stepped up their efforts. This not only reduced the fire threat, but also sparked oth­er efforts to improve the river’s health in the 1960s. In 1968, Cleve­land vot­ers approved a $100 mil­lion bond issue to finance riv­er cleanup efforts, includ­ing sew­er sys­tem improve­ments, debris removal, and stormwa­ter over­flow con­trols. By com­par­i­son, in 1968 the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment only spent $180 mil­lion nation­wide on water qual­i­ty and pol­lu­tion con­trol efforts and was still most­ly con­cerned with ensur­ing nav­i­ga­bil­i­ty of water­ways, even at the expense of main­tain­ing water qual­i­ty. Against the back­drop of slow but delib­er­ate local action, the 1969 fire was a reminder of how things had been, and rein­forced the need for con­tin­ued progress.

By the time Con­gress got around to pass­ing the CWA in 1972, riv­er fires were no longer a threat. What­ev­er else the CWA did — and it cer­tain­ly helped improve many of the nation’s waters — it did lit­tle if any­thing to pre­vent rivers from catch­ing flame. It’s also not clear how much the CWA accel­er­at­ed improve­ments in water qual­i­ty that were already under­way at the time. While most states large­ly ignored water qual­i­ty con­cerns in the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, state gov­ern­ments became far more active through­out the 1960s, such that by 1966 every state had enact­ed water pol­lu­tion con­trol leg­is­la­tion of its own. Progress was slow, but for those pol­lu­tants of great­est con­cern at the time, progress was being made well before the 1972 CWA was enact­ed, let alone before it was imple­ment­ed and enforced.

On the 45th anniver­sary of the fabled Cuya­hoga Riv­er fire, it’s appro­pri­ate to cel­e­brate the sub­stan­tial envi­ron­men­tal progress of the past sev­er­al decades, while rec­og­niz­ing that many envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems remain. Yet we should not be too quick to embrace a sim­pli­fied nar­ra­tive that cred­its the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment with over­com­ing state and local neglect of envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns. As the sto­ry the Cuya­hoga Riv­er illus­trates, the actu­al his­to­ry is far more com­pli­cat­ed, and the lessons to be drawn are not so simple.

For more on the Cuya­hoga Riv­er fires and their role in the nation’s envi­ron­men­tal his­to­ry (per­haps far more than you’d real­ly like to know), here’s a link to my 50+ page arti­cle “Fables of the Cuya­hoga: Recon­struct­ing a His­to­ry of Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion,” from the Ford­ham Envi­ron­men­tal Law Jour­nal. See also the links in this blog post from 2009. I also rec­om­mend David & Richard Stradlng’s “Per­cep­tions of the Burn­ing Riv­er: Dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion and Cleveland’s Cuya­hoga Riv­er“ from the July 2008 issue of Envi­ron­men­tal His­to­ry.