The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The fable of the burning river, 45 years later

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.