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How a burning river helped create the Clean Water Act

When the first Earth Day began on April 22, 1970, there was a communal recognition that something needed to be done about pollution.
One major symbol of that pollution was right in our back yard: in 1969, photos of a fire on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland went  "viral" - as we'd say today. Many people still believe it became the symbol of out-of-control pollution that finally motivated Congress to pass the Clean Water Act.

These days, the Cuyahoga and many other rivers and lakes in industrialized areas appear to be much cleaner. From WESA in Pittsburgh, The Allegheny Front's Julie Grant looks at the history of the river, how it got so dirty - and where it's heading today.


At the time of the first Earth Day, the Cuyahoga River was long a pollution problem.

As early as 1881, Cleveland was a major industrial city, and the Mayor then called the river "an open sewer through the center of the city."

(MUSIC from WKYC film)

This is from a film made by WKYC TV in 1967.

"The Cuyahoga River as it reaches Lake Erie after a 100-mile twisting and turning journey from its headwaters, is an exhausted stream.  Abused and misused by man and his machines."

The word cuyahoga means crooked. When you look at a map, the crooked River takes a U-shape - beginning in northeastern Geauga County, running south and west, and through Akron, then turning back north up to Cleveland.

And in the late 60s, those last few miles leading to Lake Erie, the banks were lined with steel mills and factories, and the river filled with shipping boats.

"By this time, the waters of the Cuyahoga are legally dead."

But in the late 1960s, there still hadn't been much action to stop it.

"What I really remember, was going out on...at that time I think it was the Good Time 1. It's a boat that takes people on river and Lake Erie tours"

Frank Greenland, of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, grew up in Cleveland.

"And there were fairly big algal blooms going on at that time, and a lot of dead fish, in pockets, a lot of dead and dying fish. Not a great memory."

Environmental activist Elaine Marsh remembers her first visit to Lake Erie and the river this way:

"There were all kinds of signs, "No swimming," "no boating," "Use at your own risk," It didn't even look like water. It looked like oil and grease and paint."

Tim Donovan tended ships in Cleveland's port back then. He spoke with Cleveland State University for an oral history project.

"When you were working down on the river at that time, the river was like a cauldron, it would just bubble up, oxygen trying to get out of the river. It had a coat of oil on it. And you'd see rats float down the river the size of dogs bloated from whatever it was they had ingested. And there was a rule, that if you fell in the river, you immediately went to the emergency room at the hospital. The idea here was don't fall in the river."

Most people blamed industry. There were the steel mills. And Standard Oil. Chemical, and petrochemical companies. They all lined the Cuyahoga in the 60s. Ben Stefanski stands by the river today, remembering when he was a young man, only 28, and had been hired as Utilities director of Cleveland.

"All of the industries, including Akron, just dumped their waste in the river. Untreated. That's was just what the river was there for. We didn't think about the future."

For Stefanski and many others, that changed on June 22, 1969 - the day the Cuyahoga River caught fire. The river had burned at least a dozen times before, costing millions, and even killing five people.

But 1969 was different. Newly elected President Richard Nixon was prioritizing environmental quality to deal with air and water pollution. And people were rising up around the country for other reasons. To protest the Vietnam War. And in Cleveland, there were race riots. Stefanski says there was one major reason the Cuyahoga fire got so much attention.

"The mayor was Mayor Carl Stokes. The national press had their reporters here 24 hours a day, you know, black mayor of a major city, so anything that happened in the city, no matter how small it was reported on by the press, because they were living here so they had to tell the story."

A few months after the fire, Time Magazine picked up the story, and ran a photo of an earlier, much worse fire. Elaine Marsh, who helped found Friends of the Crooked River, says that's when Cleveland's burning water shot to national prominence.

"I think when the rest of the country sort of looked at it, it was a river catching fire was just, that's it -- that's over the top, something has to be done."

The young Cleveland utilities director, Ben Stefanski, watched Mayor Stokes use the attention to raise money to clean up the water.

"Carl became a national spokesman, so he went to Washington, he was before Congress, he was from Cleveland, the city that had dirty water, plus he was a black person too, so he represented that whole community that was in the inner city, that lived along the Lake and the rivers."

Later that same year, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act, the precursor to the Environmental Protection Agency, created the following year, in 1970. Elaine Marsh remembers the first Earth Day in April 1970. She was setting up a table for the Sierra Club at the University of Akron, expecting few people to show up - but they kept coming.

"Church groups, school groups, cub scouts, girl scouts, it was really amazing. I thought it was going to be four or five tables of people i knew, you know, the usual suspects of people I knew, and I was really astonished to see all of the people who were so interested and active."

The city of Cleveland hosted what it called Environmental Crisis Week around Earth Day.

Historian David Stradling has just published a book called "Where the River Burned" about the Cuyahoga. He says Mayor Stokes didn't attend Earth Day events - for a variety of reasons.

"And he did call politicians kind of frauds on Earth Day, being out there, making speeches about the importance of investing in the environment - and at the same time going back to Washington, and dedicating very little money for this very purpose."

Indeed, President Nixon, who generally supported environmental clean up, vetoed a bill passed by Congress to create national water quality standards because of the high price tag. Congress over-rode his veto, creating what is known today as the Clean Water Act. For the Allegheny Front, I'm Julie Grant.

Learn more about the Allegheny Front, the Clean Water Act, or the history of the Cuyahoga River.