40th Anniversary of Cuyahoga River Fire

July 1, 2009
It's hard to imagine only 40 years ago this nation still had rivers catching fire due to pollution.

By Jay Collert, CHMM, CET

It's hard to imagine only 40 years ago this nation still had rivers catching fire due to pollution. And none were more famous, or infamous, then those of the Cuyahoga River in northeast Ohio. Just below Cleveland and accepting all the pollution the city could dump (principally from steel mills and other assorted industries), the river caught fire for the last time June 22, 1969. Then-U.S. Sen. Ed Muskie, the 1968 Democratic vice presidential candidate and former U.S. secretary of state, and company hadn't yet begun putting together what would become known as the Clean Water Act (initially the Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments of 1972), but this incident and others became the catalyst for that legislation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's creation.

The Cuyahoga River near Cleveland, then and now.
Click here to enlarge image

While the last fire lasted only about 30 minutes and did nearly $50,000 in damage to railroad spans and other associated items near the river, this was the fire that became a rallying cry for the environment. The fires of 1868, 1883, 1887, 1912, 1922, 1936, 1941, 1948 and 1952 were historical proof that our waters needed help. And the regulations of the day did little to protect our national resource — hence the passage of the Clean Water Act and the herculean effort by Sen. Muskie and his colleagues to author, gather support, and as it turned out, override the veto of President Richard Nixon. Congress also overrode President Ronald Reagan's veto of the 1986 CWA reauthorization and amendments. President Bill Clinton signed the last reauthorization in 1996.

At times, it's fitting to reflect on the history of our environmental laws and regulations to get a sense of how far we've come and how far we have to go. To read about the Cuyahoga River fire, see: www.epa.gov/region5/news/features/cuyahoga40th.html.

About the Author: Jay Collert is a nationally recognized environmental trainer and consultant with the Aarcher Institute of Environmental Training LLC, based in Houston, TX. Since 1994, he has helped companies understand and comply with complexities of environmental regulations. Contact: 281-256-9044, [email protected] or www.aarcherinstitute.com

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