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50 Years Later: Burning Cuyahoga River Called Poster Child For Clean Water Act


A burning river in Ohio may have changed the course of the environmental movement. It happened 50 years ago, and it led to change. Here's Mark Urycki of member station WCPN.

MARK URYCKI, BYLINE: The fire, as every comedian knows, was on the Cuyahoga River, which flows through Cleveland into Lake Erie. It also served as a dump for all kinds of industrial waste, ever since John D. Rockefeller started Standard Oil on its east bank during the Civil War. The media took notice of the pollution, as ominously illustrated in this 1967 local TV documentary, which said the Cuyahoga had been worked to death.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The flow has been put to work as a navigable stream, a water supply and as a sewer. Man's mark is everywhere.

URYCKI: By 1969, things were changing in Cleveland. Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of a major American city, was in office. He and his young utilities director convinced voters to approve a $100-million bond issue to clean up the city's waterways. Jane Goodman heads the group Cuyahoga River Restoration.

JANE GOODMAN: He'd only been in office, like, a few months, and he got (laughter) this bond issue passed, stating, this is something we need to improve. That was a turning point, even before the fire.

URYCKI: But then on June 22, a spark from a passing rail car ignited an oil slick and the river appeared to be on fire. The next day, Mayor Stokes used that event to take reporters to the river and later testified to Congress about big cities' struggles to stop polluters.


CARL STOKES: We have the kind of air and water pollution problems in these cities that are every bit as dangerous to the health and safety of our citizens as any intercontinental ballistic missiles that's so dramatically poised 5,000 miles from our country.

URYCKI: But most of the attention came because Time magazine published a story about the fire, while unveiling a new section called Environment, and it listed other severely polluted rivers around the country. Goodman says they sold a lot of issues of that week's magazine.

GOODMAN: It was after the moon shots. It was Teddy Kennedy on the cover. It was the Chappaquiddick issue. That made more people aware of it.

URYCKI: The magazine ran a photo of a bigger fire on the Cuyahoga that occurred 17 years earlier. By January of 1970, in the midst of the Vietnam War, President Nixon dedicated one-third of his State of the Union address to environmental problems.


RICHARD NIXON: The great question of the '70s is, shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land and to our water?


URYCKI: At the end of that year, Nixon signed an executive order creating the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And by 1972, what we know as the Clean Water Act became law. Here's Ohio EPA's Kurt Princic.

KURT PRINCIC: The objective of the Clean Water Act is to maintain and restore the integrity of the nation's water and to make it swimmable and fishable.


URYCKI: Standing in the industrial area of the river, where 300-foot-long freighters cruise past, Jane Goodman notes that half the battle was just shutting off the sources of pollution. Volunteers brought in their own boats to start cleaning up the river.

GOODMAN: The work of these guys who just went out and started picking up the floating debris that holds the oil and chemicals and vacuuming up the floating scum and debris.

URYCKI: Every decade since, the river has gotten much cleaner. Ohio EPA's Kurt Princic says the Cuyahoga River is a national model.

PRINCIC: We're a leader in the country, and other states throughout the country come to us to see what we're doing. And what we like to do is we like to say - we look at a stretch of water, and we say, OK, who's living in it? What bugs? What fish? Because that tells the story.

URYCKI: That story of the Cuyahoga River's rebirth continues later today on All Things Considered.

For NPR News, I'm Mark Urycki.

(SOUNDBITE OF R.E.M.'S "CUYAHOGA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mark Urycki