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The 1969 Cuyahoga River Fire -- Forty Years Later:

Forty years ago today, some oil and debris floating on the surface of the Cuyahoga River began to burn. The resulting fire was not much of a local event — it was out within 30 minutes and caused minimal damage — but soon became a national symbol of environmental ruin. The image of a river engulfed in flames seared itself into the nation's emerging environmental consciousness and helped spur a series of far-reaching federal environmental statutes. Today, people look at the Cuyahoga River with amazement at how far it has come in forty years time. "From fire to fish-friendly," as reported today by the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The 1969 Cuyahoga River fire was one of the seminal events in American environmental history, yet the conventional narrative about the fire is all wrong — including the famous picture that Time magazine published erroneously. News photographers failed to arrive in time to catch pictures of the quick blaze. The picture Time published was actually from 1952.

The 1969 fire was less a symbol of how bad things could get, than a reminder of how bad things had once been. While the Cuyahoga River was hopelessly polluted in 1969, river fires by this point were largely a thing of the past. Indeed, river fires had once been common on the Cuyahoga and other industrialized rivers. Throughout the late 19th and 20th century, combustible material on industrialized rivers ignited somewhat frequently. By 1969, this problem had been largely solved. By that time, the Cuyahoga River had not burned in over 15 years, and the once-common problem of river fires had been largely forgotten. Water pollution remained a serious concern, but not because rivers threatened to burn.

There's been substantial media coverage of the river fire's 40th anniversary, much of which draws upon my effort to reconstruct an environmental history of the fire in "Fables of the Cuyahoga: Reconstructing a History of Environmental Protection" [14 Fordham Envtl. L.J. 89 (2002)]. The New York Times had a story today on the Cuyahoga River's tremendous environmental progress, as did NPR. The Cleveland Plain Dealer has been running a whole series on "The Year of the River," which includes this story on the history, and this one on my research.

cboldt (mail):
... including the famous picture that Time magazine published erroneously. News photographers failed to arrive in time to catch pictures of the quick blaze. The picture Time published was actually from 1952.

Erroneously? Ha! Just a pedestrian example of media integrity, find information to fit the narrative. If suitable information can't be found, fabricate it. "Fake but accurate" and "the crowd booed" come to mind.
6.22.2009 7:25pm
Fub:
The image of a river engulfed in flames seared itself into the nation's emerging environmental consciousness and helped spur a series of far-reaching federal environmental statutes.
Assisted in no small part by Randy Newman's song "Burn On".
6.22.2009 7:34pm
CaDan (mail):
All those REM references really should have been footnoted. ;)
6.22.2009 7:56pm
CaDan (mail):
And, 'Cuyahoga' is on Lifes Rich Pageant, not Fables of the Reconstruction.
6.22.2009 7:57pm
frerad (mail):
And the recent collapse of the Cavs and the current play of the Indians show that other things still burst into flames randomly in Cleveland. At least there is hope for improvement from the Browns. Will someone please win this city a championship? Please!!
6.22.2009 8:07pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
Urban pollution was actually far worse in the past. The Great London smog of 1952 provides a good example of how bad things can get. Today Mexico City is one of the worst major cities for air pollution. I asked a Mexican friend if everyone there is sick all the time, she said that most people have a runny nose all the time, but serious consequences are not evident.

Like most everything else pollution control exhibits the law of diminishing returns. The first and significant improvement is cheap, but past a certain point it costs more and more to get less and less improvement. It takes infinite money to get to 100%.
6.22.2009 8:10pm
sbron:
Yes, much less pollution and no more manufacturing jobs that can support a family. If you haven't seen this Cleveland tourism video yet...
6.22.2009 8:28pm
Randy R. (mail):
Hey, Professor, congrats on the NY Times quotes! I saw those yesterday, and was mighty impressed.

Glad the ole river is doing so well.
6.22.2009 8:29pm
Beer Rules (mail) (www):
That fire birthed one hell of a beer.

http://beeradvocate.com/beer/profile/73/225
6.22.2009 8:42pm
BT:
I'll second the beer reference. Burning River is a very fine beer.
6.22.2009 9:41pm
Michael Greene (mail):
In John McPhee's biography of the Wyoming geologist David Love, McPhee quotes Love as saying the river fire was a common event that arose from oil seeps along the river. The fires were partially responsible for drawing the 19th century oil barons to Pennsylvania. As the Pennsylvanian oil got pumped out, the seeps dried up and the fires became an event of the past. The EPA had little to do with quelling the fires though they'll gladly take credit for it.

The book, Rising From the Plains, is chocablock with tidbits of that nature and well worth the time to read.
6.22.2009 9:42pm
mga3 (mail) (www):
So the modern environmental movement is built on fiction. Who would have thought such a thing?
6.22.2009 10:01pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):
G. K. Chesterton's Tales of the Long Bow (mid-1920s, I think) involves the protagonist literally "setting the Thames on fire," with the help of a thrown torch and a lot of surface-floating pollution.

My guess (no research here) is that this sort of thing happened frequently enough that Chesterton could make one of the jokes of this plot hinge on it.
6.22.2009 10:14pm
R Gould-Saltman (mail):
I lived in Kent (upriver from the burning part) in '69 and remember what the river smelled like, and looked like. No, mga3, there was no "fiction"; the river was horribly polluted, and was flammable, though not terribly picturesquely so. In addition to the river's assorted volatile hydrocarbons, now long gone, there were interesting amounts of mercury and other metals, which ended up on the bottom of Erie.

Akron ("The Rubber City")of course smelled like, well, burning rubber, even with your car windows closed, and some parts around Youngstown, and IIRC, Steubenville, had air so soot-gritty that white laundry hung to dry got grey in a day.

Had the smokestack industries re-tooled, and kept ahead of the curve, we might not have lost those jobs, and the air and water'd be clean as well.
6.22.2009 10:25pm
MCM (mail):
mga3:

So the modern environmental movement is built on fiction. Who would have thought such a thing?


Fiction?? Did the river not actually catch on fire??

While the Cuyahoga River was hopelessly polluted in 1969,


So, regardless of the fact that there was actually a problem...

river fires by this point were largely a thing of the past.


...and except insofar as the Cuyahoga River did catch on fire...

Indeed, river fires had once been common on the Cuyahoga and other industrialized rivers. Throughout the late 19th and 20th century, combustible material on industrialized rivers ignited somewhat. By 1969, this problem had been largely solved. By that time, the Cuyahoga River had not burned in over 15 years, and the once-common problem of river fires had been largely forgotten. Water pollution remained a serious concern, but not because rivers threatened to burn.


... the environmental movement is founded on fiction. Bravo, mga3, you've unveiled the charlatans. Idiot.
6.22.2009 10:28pm
John Thacker (mail):
While the Cuyahoga River was hopelessly polluted in 1969, river fires by this point were largely a thing of the past. Indeed, river fires had once been common on the Cuyahoga and other industrialized rivers. Throughout the late 19th and 20th century, combustible material on industrialized rivers ignited somewhat. By 1969, this problem had been largely solved.


This is a recurring phenomenon in history. Certain problems become viewed as awful precisely when they're dying out. Child labor, lack of education, etc. Food poisoning scares and mine accidents seem to get more coverage now because they're rarer, so more newsworthy then they happen.
6.22.2009 10:28pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):
R Gould-Saltman,

I think the "fiction" mga3 meant was not that the river burned, but that people came to believe that such a thing had never happened before.

I remember this as one of those horrifying anecdotes you got tossed in social studies class in middle school. (By the end of the 60s, pollution was so bad that one river actually caught on fire!) Granted, I was in middle school at the end of the 70s, when this sort of thing was at its peak. But the lesson was always that pollution (and every other aspect of "man's footprint on the earth") was getting ever worse and worse, and only desperate action could reverse the trend.

It would have been interesting to learn that polluted rivers had caught fire before Cuyahoga (and that Cuyahoga was the star case partly because it hadn't any major successors), but it might have diluted the lesson.
6.22.2009 10:41pm
cboldt (mail):
-- It would have been interesting to learn that polluted rivers had caught fire before Cuyahoga --
.
And too, that some of the "pollution" that was capable of supporting combustion was the result of natural oil seeps. In other words, the pollution was in place even in the absence of human activity.
.
Not that cleaning up after mother nature is a bad idea. Heck, the oil is valuable, for one thing, and messy for another. But the cleanup is man imposing his will on nature.
6.22.2009 11:27pm
DennisN (mail):
The environmental movement had been in place before the Cuyahoga Fire. It spawned the Crown Jewel of the Environmental Movement The Clean Water Act. Innumerable rivers that you wouldn't want to stand beside are now swimmable and fishable. It worked.

It also spawned the National Environmental Policy Act - every obstructionist scum's best friend.
6.22.2009 11:32pm
AlanDownunder (mail):

This is a recurring phenomenon in history. Certain problems become viewed as awful precisely when they're dying out.

Like Reaganomics. Little perception of the problem sanctioned by mainstream thought, and no end of boosters, until after the problem has wreaked its havoc.
6.23.2009 12:16am
Josh644 (mail):
Throughout the late 19th and 20th century, combustible material on industrialized rivers ignited somewhat.

This sentence is a little odd. Are words missing?

[Fixed. Thanks. JHA]
6.23.2009 12:23am
Henry679 (mail):
Don't worry--if there had been no environmental movement, "the market" and Ronald Reagan would have fixed all our pollution problems, like they fixed every other problem ever to face the US of A.
6.23.2009 1:07am
Jay:
"This is a recurring phenomenon in history. Certain problems become viewed as awful precisely when they're dying out. Child labor, lack of education, etc. Food poisoning scares and mine accidents seem to get more coverage now because they're rarer, so more newsworthy then they happen."

I see what you're saying, but isn't this sort of a chicken/egg thing? When no one thinks something is a very big deal, no one is doing much about it, so one isn't going to find a lot of concern expressed in the historical record. When moral/political sentiments change (perhaps in themselves, or perhaps because a particular problem has gotten worse), that inspires action against the problem, lessening its impact. But since movements tend to outlive their original aims, you have a lot of noise being made about the issue for years after the original problem has gone into decline (see, e.g., MADD, labor unions).
6.23.2009 2:26am
Houston Lawyer:
Ah, its good to see people bitching about Reagan again, now that we've re-elected Jimmy Carter. Be sure to tune in to the press conference where our Dear Leader will explain how he will solve all of the world's problems through the force of his personality and a tax on sody water.
6.23.2009 9:15am
John Thacker (mail):
I see what you're saying, but isn't this sort of a chicken/egg thing? When no one thinks something is a very big deal, no one is doing much about it, so one isn't going to find a lot of concern expressed in the historical record. When moral/political sentiments change (perhaps in themselves, or perhaps because a particular problem has gotten worse), that inspires action against the problem, lessening its impact.


Yes, there's certainly some of that. Though I'd disagree that people ever thought of impure food as "not a big deal;" just not something that they could do something about. Mine accidents were a terrible part of being a miner, but something that came with the job and hence not "news," (unlike today) but I'm certainly that people thought that they were a big deal in a moral sense.

Tainted food and mine accidents are rarer than they were 5, 10, 15 years ago. Both have had clear decreasing trends over any time scale you look at. But the rarer they become, the bigger news they are when they happen, precisely because being rare makes them news.

But I'd make an even stronger statement: In most of the cases mentioned, the political and moral action tends to come after market forces and other changes have already started reducing the problem and making it cheaper to do so.

The traditional narrative often gets it backwards, pretending that the way these problems were solved was by raising consciousness and political action leading to solutions being found. In reality, what politics tends to do is jump on the bandwagon and (presumably) hasten the stamping out of the last remnants of a problem that's already in decline, or for which a solution has already been found. Largely that's because people don't worry about problems that they can't solve or can't afford to solve.

Child labor had already massively decreased among the middle class before they were willing to use politics to ban it among the poor as well. The same with mandatory schooling. Racial discrimination legislation was possible at a national level because discrimination had already lessened, and that was reflected in the statistics. Mine safety legislation, the weekend, overtime, etc., all legislated after they became cheaper, possible, and had already been introduced and spread on a private scale.

Statistically it is often difficult to pinpoint the introduction of political action by plotting these incidents over time. That doesn't mean that the political action had no effects, of course; it could still have been necessary to mop up the last remnants of a problem.
6.23.2009 9:30am
DerHahn (mail):
Well said, Houston Lawyer and John Thacker.

John, I would add to your points that the 'reason' a particular practice is outlawed is often subjected to signification historical revision through the prism of current political debates. For example, child labor laws weren't passed just because politicans became progressive and enlighted about the need for universal schooling and a more educated workforce. The laws also benefited unemployed adults and unions by restricting the labor pool and driving up wages.
6.23.2009 10:06am
rosetta's stones:
That's all true, Thacker, but water management is a unique case. Left to his own devices, the upstream guy often doesn't give a fig about the downstream guy. So, either I have to load my Winchester and saddle up and go have a "talk" with the upstream guy, or the government has to get involved somehow and help settle matters.

I'd agree government has taken their role in water management much, much too far, but there is a place for their involvement in it, even though it will often and inevitably be a corrupt and incompetent involvement.
6.23.2009 10:14am
SamW:
JT - It sounds like you are saying that laws that prevent dumping in the river are more expensive than cleaning up the river but isn't part the reason for changes in the law distributive - that the cost should be born by the dumper and such is only "possible" to do, when they are tempted to dump, not a hundred years later, when they no longer exist.

To put it another way, could it be that later generations have learned something that prior generations did not know, and this also accounts for changes in law.
6.23.2009 10:19am
Rhode Island Lawyer:
A good read about Cleveland from the 1940s through the 1970s is Crooked River Burning by Mark Winegarden.


Crooked River Burning
6.23.2009 11:17am
Henry679 (mail):
I wasn't bitching about Reagan. I was bitching about the idiots who think environmental progress didn't need the environmental movement. Certainly there are extremists who should be discounted, but the overall impact of the movement was profoundly good--and conservatives had very little to do with it. After the fact, the Right tries to co-opt those parts of the environmental agenda it now finds palatable. But at the time the issue was in dispute, it was less than useless--just as it was during the civil rights movement, when Goldwater and Reagan and Buckley and the like were opposed to things like 1964 Civil Rights Act, Fair Housing laws, etc. Now, of course, their intellectual offspring are all for such things--when all the hard work was done by "radicals" they demonized decades ago.

Hmmmm...sounds vaguely dialectical.
6.23.2009 1:35pm
DennisN (mail):
SamW:
To put it another way, could it be that later generations have learned something that prior generations did not know, and this also accounts for changes in law.


Not only have we learned a thing or three, but the situation has evolved over time.

When it is only you standing on the bank of the river peeing in the water, then Dilution is the Solution to Pollution. When there is a million of you peeing in the river, the situation is a bit different. As always, the cure lags the disease.
6.23.2009 1:40pm
Michael Ejercito (mail) (www):

But since movements tend to outlive their original aims, you have a lot of noise being made about the issue for years after the original problem has gone into decline (see, e.g., MADD, labor unions).

Every organization has self-perpetuation as its goal.
6.23.2009 2:01pm
Henry679 (mail):
Every organization has self-perpetuation as its goal.



Absolutely, GD correct, sir. No matter how noble the initial goals, this always seems to be the case in the long run.
6.23.2009 2:09pm
Randy R. (mail):
Henry: " I was bitching about the idiots who think environmental progress didn't need the environmental movement. "

We have the same people who think that wall street and business in general doesn't need any regulation other than 'self-regulation.' Sometimes business *doesn't* do what's in it's long term interest.

Jared Diamond wrote in "Collapse" about this very thing. He detailed societies in the past that self-destructed through environmental degredation, or abuse of natural resources. On the other hand, some societies have survived, but only through a consensus understanding that everyone must contribute to sustaining the society.

Man isn't always very good about coming up with a self-sustaining ecology.
6.23.2009 4:51pm
MJ Tron:

Every organization has self-perpetuation as its goal.


Ahem
6.25.2009 8:34am
DennisN (mail):
Every organization has self-perpetuation as its goal.

Ahem



Exception that proves the rule (at the risk of commiting thread necromancy.) And I wish them success, at least with regard to their own membership.

Actually the San Francisco Vigilante Committee, after hanging several men, including two from the windows of their downtown SF headquarters, and trying a State Supreme Court Justice, disbanded themselves. Twice, actually - the second time after holding a parade of 6,000 members under arms.
6.25.2009 11:26am

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