The impact of a burning river

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When the Cuyahoga caught fire in 1969, it set off a chain of events that led to federal action for clean water. It was a huge win for the environment and those who use the water for recreation, but our work isn’t finished.

Perhaps no river has had more impact on national policy than the Cuyahoga, which flows into Lake Erie through downtown Cleveland. And the day the river “burned,” 50 years ago this Saturday, forever changed environmental concern and law.

On June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga caught fire. It will be marked by a “Burning River Fest” this weekend commemorating that blaze of industrial chemical wastes and oil polluting the river. It thrust Cleveland in the national spotlight, albeit not in a flattering way. Still, in retrospect, that fire drew serious attention to waterway protection, and to that end we the boating industry and we boaters should celebrate it, too.

Cleveland was once a major industrial center with steel mills, oil refineries and factories of every description. And through the heart of this industrial landscape flowed the winding Cuyahoga (believed to be Mohawk for “crooked river”), upon which big ore vessels would deliver their cargoes and into which industry would dump its garbage.

It was around noon on June 22 when sparks from a passing train crossing the Cuyahoga dropped down to ignite the oily waterway. And it wasn’t the first time the river burned. A fire broke out in 1952 that threatened an oil refinery. Indeed, records indicate river fires weren’t that unusual. At least 13 other fires are recorded back to 1868, when the industrial revolution was taking hold in America.

History reveals that until the Cuyahoga burned in ’69, concern for the environment stood little chance in the wake of the industrial growth that triggered unending waste dumped into the river and flowed out into Lake Erie. Even when the Cuyahoga caught fire in 1912, in which five people died, and another major fire in 1952 that caused $1.5 million in damage (expensive at that time), industrial growth was simply more important than conservation, say historians.

Fortunately, the 1969 fire was the river’s last. By that time, America had turned a corner during. There was flower power, protests against war, the Woodstock gathering and a greatly heightened focus on Mother Earth. Change was coming fast.

So the national news coverage that blackened Cleveland’s eye for its river that caught fire played a significant role in what was to come. It ignited a national concern for clean water. Local leaders were being pressured to take water pollution seriously, and this generated the same need on the national scene. So what happened?

One year after the ’69 blaze President Richard Nixon signed an executive order creating the Environmental Protection Agency. Then the focus shifted to Lake Erie. It replaced the Cuyahoga as a joke on late night TV talk shows. By 1970, the negative environmental impact of Lake Erie had reached a climax: The lake was declared dead.

More attention was focused on water as Earth Day was inaugurated in 1970 and is now celebrated in annual events the Earth Day Networkin more than 193 countries.

As the nation’s concern for water continued to build, Lake Erie’s problems were addressed in another way. Nixon signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the United States and Canada, setting limits on sewage and phosphorus entering the lake. Remember, most of the lake’s north shore is Canadian.

Perhaps most important, Congress, always notably slow, finally passed key legislation less in 1972: the Clean Water Act, which remains the cornerstone of water quality protection.

Sadly, the battle to protect the waters of Lake Erie isn’t over. Many of Ohio’s boating interests are fighting to save the lake again — this time by preventing the construction of wind turbines in Lake Erie off Cleveland in a proposed demonstration project that’s intended to lead to more than 1,400 turbines blighting the lake. It raises huge environmental concerns not yet adequately addressed by regulators.

To that end, an outstanding opinion letter by Michelle Burke, president of the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association, just ran in Crain’s Cleveland Business. It lays out the need for a full environmental impact statement to be ordered and completed before any construction permit is issued by the Ohio Power Siting Board. Again, water quality and other environmental concerns are at stake.

The letter deserves to be more widely circulated. Look for it here in Dealer Outlook on Thursday.

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