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Question of the Week: What do you remember about the Cuyahoga River burning?

2009 June 22

Forty years ago, debris on the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire and news reports helped spur greater awareness of environmental protection.  Share memories you have of this event.

What do you remember about the Cuyahoga River burning?

Each week we ask a question related to the environment. Please let us know your thoughts as comments. Feel free to respond to earlier comments or post new ideas. Previous questions.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

22 Responses leave one →
  1. Steve permalink
    June 22, 2009

    Randy Newman’s song:

    “The Lord can make you tumble,
    The Lord can make you turn,
    The Lord can make you overflow,
    But the Lord cain’t make you burn.

    Burn On, Big River, Burn On.”

  2. Benjamin Dover permalink
    June 22, 2009

    Wienie roast!

  3. Jon permalink
    June 22, 2009

    I’ve never heard of this River or the burning of it.

  4. Chris S permalink
    June 22, 2009

    I’m old enough to remember this event… and the alarmed cry of “Lake Erie is DEAD!”, not to mention the first Earth Day or even further back, Lady Bird Johnson’s campaign of “Keep America Beautiful.”

    But what I really remember, was on my high school senior class trip, visiting Washington, DC and going out on a dock over the Potomac River and seeing a school of dead fish float past. That and the warning sign posted nearby that read “DO NOT TOUCH THE WATER!”

    This was the state of affairs that finally roused the world enough to start paying attention to environmental issues, even as it tried to avoid paying the piper.

  5. Ashley permalink
    June 22, 2009

    Wasn’t alive when this event occurred but spent enough time in college learning about it.

  6. CKG permalink
    June 22, 2009

    My Dad had an office in a very tall building in Cleveland called the Terminal Tower which directly overlooked the river as it floed into Lake Erie. The Cuyahoga in those days was always a bright orange color (steel mill waste?), so the sight of it burning kind of made unfortunate sense.

  7. Ray permalink
    June 22, 2009

    I am to young to have been aware of this event, however learned about it from parents and in school. I do remember going east for the first time as a 10 yr old and crossing the Pigeon River. The bridge was very high above the water and the smell was still overwhelming, HORRIBLE! We had never experienced pollution in Southern NM. We have come a long way as a country repairing our water ways and forest. I would like to see the world compare our repairs of the environment to the rest of the world, instead of just going on about how bad we are.

  8. kongning permalink
    June 23, 2009

    This was the state of affairs that finally roused the world enough to start paying attention to environmental issues, even as it tried to avoid paying the piper.

  9. Danielle permalink
    June 23, 2009

    With all of the calamitous disasters the United States has faced, this one has never been brought to my attention.

  10. Don Says permalink
    June 23, 2009

    The river had a red/orange color to it. Parts of the Chicago River also experienced fires years ago.

  11. Druz permalink
    June 23, 2009

    I remember vividly. That event was one of several that I was focused on in the early 1970′s after adoption of the 1972 CWA. I was involved with Escambia Bay, Florida. The bay hadn’t caught on fire, but you could walk on mullet and croaker carcasses from shore to shore without wetting your shoes. It had made “Life” Magazine’s top ten list (along with the Cuyahoga) for most polluted U.S. Waters.

  12. Mike permalink
    June 23, 2009

    I recall the river down near the Flats still being quite pungent in the mid to late 80′s. Not any thing you would want to jump in and take a swim. However, a more scenic part of the river located in Portage and Summit Counties provided us with some cool canoe trips and seining opportunities.

  13. Scott D permalink
    June 23, 2009

    I teach an Environmental Ethics class at the University of Phoenix (Sacramento Campus). In 4 years, NONE of my students have even heard of the Cuyahoga River. When I ask where it is, they respond, “Cuyahoga?”. We need more outreach to young adults about the amazing accomplishments achieved through the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Superfund/Brownfields programs, and others. Message: the environment is cleaner and healthier!

  14. Kermit permalink
    June 23, 2009

    I was not born yet. The biggest environmental disaster I can remember from growing up was Exxon Valdez…

  15. Steve permalink
    June 23, 2009

    Some other interesting facts:

    The photo of the Cuyahoga fire at the portal to this blog on the EPA web page was not the 1969 incident, but rather a 1952 fire that destroyed a rail bridge. The City of Cleveland was sued and wound up paying to replace the bridge.

    By 1969, river fires were so common in Cleveland — and many other urban areas — that special detachments of the fire departments were trained to fight fire on the water.

    At the time of the 1969 fire, Cleveland had only recently elected the first African-American mayor of a major U.S. metropolitan area. Mayor Carl Stokes reportedly threatened to sue those responsible for making the Cuyahoga flammable. Problem was, that would include practically every upstream discharger.

    The 1969 river fire lasted only about thrity minutes, relatively minor compared to others in Cleveland’s history. What made this incident so notorious was the coverage in a widely-read issue of Time magazine. It was the press and the activist spirit of the times — not the magnitude of the actual event — that sparked the landmark legislation to come.

  16. masters permalink
    June 23, 2009

    Masters
    jose.villanueva@dla.mil | 131.70.204.120
    I want to go back and resurrect the topic concerning “Mutating Coquis”. I wonder if the people (from the start of the blog) speak with scientific facts. Have these people, complaining about mutating ninjas Coquis, measured the biggest Coquis in Puerto Rico? Or better yet, have they kept a log of measurements and keep a track of these mutating scary Coquis? If you do not have the scientific facts then keep your opinions to yourself or say that you are looking for a reason to hate them and they are mutating to your opinion. HMMM, I wonder if the invasive Palm Trees in Hawaii mutating also. Anyways, I make a promise to anyone that if they find a coqui mutating as big as a Dog I will buy them a collar and leash so they can walk them. Ahhh, what the heck, call me and I will walk them for you for free. <> However, maybe they will fight crime. All jokes aside. Why hate? I do not understand; why hate the coqui? Hawaii has many invasive creatures (including people) and plants. Are humans mutating? Please, learn to embrace Nature and its beauty and be careful and respectful of its danger. One last thought. If you fumigate the obnoxious invasive coqui, why not your obnoxious invasive neighbors?
    From Keep the coquí alive!, 2009/06/23 at 8:59 AM

  17. Chuck permalink
    June 24, 2009

    not much

  18. Richard permalink
    June 25, 2009

    It shocked the nation while fire fighting crews were unable to initially control it or put it out and represented a clear turning point in what allowable discharges should be.

  19. Anonymous permalink
    June 26, 2009

    That’s why I don’t remember it, growing up in Cleveland. It wasn’t that remarkable after all.

  20. Tracy permalink
    June 26, 2009

    I was to young to remember the event when it happened, but that didn’t stop people from reminding me of it every time I said I was from Celveland. Still happens to this day. That river became the symbol of a city in trouble. Even after the river was cleaned up and now that the Cleveland Harbor is a national model, the Baltimore Harbor was modeled on it, the bad memories still haunt the town. Lesson to learn here, that kind of envirnomental disaster can have a lasting impact on a community long after the flames die down.

  21. Margaret L Soderberg, MD permalink
    July 2, 2009

    When I was a student at the University of Michigan, I had a room-mate from Cleveland. I remember how dramatically the fire demonstrated that the Cayahuga was polluted. Perhaps a harbinger of things to come….

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