cuyahoga river

EPA at 40

By Deb Berlin

Question: What do burning rivers, lead, and President Nixon have in common?
Answer: EPA in the 1970’s.

December 2, 1970 is the EPA’s birthday. We were founded by an Executive Order from President Nixon, during the turmoil of the Vietnam War and shortly after the first Earth Day.

Skyscraper of Manhattan veiled in Smog, 05/1973

Skyscraper of Manhattan veiled in smog, 05/1973

This was a time when a river in Ohio, the Cuyahoga, could be so fouled with industrial pollution, garbage and oil, that it could support no wildlife whatsoever and catch on fire 13 times – trash burning where people should swim and fish.  The Agency coalesced quickly and within two years helped create the Clean Water Act, which provides broad protections and limits dumping of industrial pollution into waterways.

At the same time, we started the phase out of leaded gasoline. You can see why from this smog-obscured view of the 1973 Manhattan skyline, representative of other American cities at the time.  Lead exposure was widespread and could give children permanent brain damage.

Question: What’s the state of burning rivers and lead inside people these days?
Answer: The Cuyahoga is cleaner than it has been in generations and thousands of water bodies across the country have been revitalized. Lead in our air is down more than 90% from a generation ago.

Over forty years we’ve cleaned the country’s drinking water, reduced exposure to dangerous chemicals, and penalized polluters. EPA helps protect human health and the environment in so many ways, such as helping save energy dollars through the Energy Star label, working to increase your gas mileage, classifying second-hand smoke as a cause of cancer, and removing arsenic from apples.
For more examples, see our whole history in 3 minutes (“40th Anniversary Video”) or
view the milestones on our timeline. Please be part of our anniversary – help us make the country cleaner tomorrow – Pick 5 for the Environment.

About the author: Deb Berlin works in the EPA Office of Public Affairs on strategic communications.

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.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here 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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Question of the Week: How have modern events inspired you to make personal changes?

Forty years ago, events like the Santa Barbara oil spill and the Cuyahoga River catching on fire mobilized a massive public reaction, resulting in the first Earth Day and the creation of EPA.

How have modern events inspired you to make personal changes?


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 here 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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Memories of the Cuyahoga River

This month is the 40th anniversary of the Cuyahoga River catching on fire. I was born and grew up in Cleveland on the east side. The 1969 river fire occurred between my junior and senior years of high school. I remember being embarrassed that this could happen in my home town. I remember the beaches near the city being closed and traveling all the way out to Mentor to go swimming. While in college, during the early 1970’s I worked on an ore boat that occasionally docked on the river and in the Republic Steel mill. The river was a place to work.

After working in Chicago briefly, I returned to Cleveland in 1976. I moved to the west side of Cleveland , which for an eastsider was another world. The Cuyahoga River and the Flats became a meeting area for me, as I traveled between the west side and my east side roots. In the later 1970’s and early 1980’s I remember the Flats became the entertainment hotspot. Outdoor concerts were held on Fridays after work and it seemed as though everyone was there. I meet my wife at Fagans, the old east side bar, when it still had that shot and a beer feel. The river still looked dirty but oil slicks were rare and it didn’t catch fire anymore.

image of boat that looks like a duck and is made from milk cartons. This milk carton boat was built and raced by some of the EPA staff here in the Cleveland office during the Krazy Kraft Race which was part of the Flats Fest in July 1991.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s I was busy working and raising a family. Although I had settled in Bay Village , my family and I continued to come to the river. Shooters, the Powerhouse, Goodtime cruises, river festivals with milk carton boat races and concerts brought my family and I back to the river. Upstream the Cuyahoga Valley National Park became a biking destination. Now the bike trails go from Akron to the lake.

I’ve noticed the river has begun to look scenic. When did it become a place to take people visiting from out of town instead of a punch line for a Cleveland joke? I don’t know, but I’m happy it did.

If you have photos or memories of the Cuyahoga River either today or way back when, please share them with the rest of us along with your stories either by commenting directly on our blog, or posting your photos to our Flickr page at http://www.flickr.com/groups/epa-cuyahoga40th/

Mark Moloney works in EPA’s Cleveland Office and is an environmental engineer who has been with the agency since 1974. He does multimedia investigations and other projects for the Enforcement Compliance Assurance Team and in the early 90s became the EPA’s to the Cuyahoga River RAP Organization.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here 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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

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

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 here 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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.