We Clevelanders take responsibility for the day when a polluted, ugly Cuyahoga River burned in 1969. Although it wasn’t actually the river that went up in flames — more like oil-soaked debris — national media shorthanded the event to sound as if the water was ablaze.
But we also want some credit for igniting change in the American mindset. Clevelanders, horrified by the negative national publicity, came together to stop killing our waterway. Other American cities heard the wakeup call.
“Clearly the river catching on fire had an influence on the Clean Water Act and the development of our nation’s environmental consciousness,” says Kurt Princic, Ohio EPA’s northeast district chief, noting that Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes testified for the passage of the act. “Over time we learned it was no longer jobs versus fish. We learned we could have a robust economy and environmental protection.”
How are we doing now? The first comprehensive water quality survey of the Cuyahoga River was in 1967 when not one fish was found between Akron and Cleveland. In 2017 (the most recent survey), 76 different fish species and 134,000 individual fish were identified, according to the Ohio EPA.
Still, we have a way to go. Jade Davis, vice president of external affairs for the Port of Cleveland, says 200 tons of flotsam and jetsam were pulled from the river by his agency alone in the past five years.
“We can even get past the point of the river being an AOC — area of concern,” adds Davis. “Even thinking that would have been impossible back in the days of the Cuyahoga River fires.”
Also, without the act, today’s recreational opportunities would not be possible. No kayaks, canoes, standup paddleboards. Fewer tourist dollars, less outdoor exercise for residents. For Cleveland, the burn is in the past, the spark is in the future.
Jill Sell has been writing for Cleveland Magazine since the late 1970s, but her favorite topic is always the environment.