For the last 40 years, on April 22, we have celebrated Earth Day, both as a global celebration of the progress that we have made in our efforts to clean up the environment – and as a means to increase awareness of environmental issues. Cities and neighborhoods around the U.S. and the world observe Earth Day in their own fashion, some with large events, some with small. The current trend to “go green” has given Earth Day greater significance in recent years, but often lost in the effort is the event that triggered the whole movement.
On a Sunday afternoon in June, 1969, a fire erupted on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio. Thought to be ignited by molten steel or a spark from a passing train, the incident was not regarded as particularly alarming at the time. Indeed, rivers that flowed through many US urban centers were used as convenient sewers for industrial and human wastes, and river fires caused by the accumulating oil and debris were common between the late 19th and 20th centuries.
The Cuyahoga flows past Akron in northeastern Ohio and empties into Lake Erie, resulting in severe water quality deterioration, fouled shoreline and loss of fish population in the lake. Heavy industry in cities along the shores of Lake Erie also contributed, but the damage was caused largely by the pollution of the Cuyahoga.
By 1969, the Cuyahoga River had caught fire at least a dozen times before the 1950’s, causing substantial damage to docks, ships, dockside properties and becoming a hazard for local shipping. So when the Cuyahoga ignited again in June of 1969, local officials took it in stride. No one called the Chief of Police. The fire was handled by the regular firefighting tugboat crew, who routinely dealt with oil slicks and maintained constant watch for river fires. The blaze was under control within a half hour.
William E. Barry, then chief of the Cleveland Fire Department was quoted as saying, “It was strictly a run of the mill fire.” The story barely made the local news.
But this “run of the mill fire” was different. It caught the attention of Time magazine, who commented in August of 1969, “Some river! Chocolate brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases. It oozes rather than flows. ‘Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown,’ Cleveland’s citizens joke grimly. ‘He decays.’ ”
Other national media gradually picked up the story, but perhaps the greatest awareness came from Randy Newman’s song, “Burn On, Big River” and a famous photo of news reporter Richard Ellers removing his blackened, gooey hand from the waters of the Cuyahoga.
As national media began taking a closer look, it became obvious that the inches-thick black goo and floating debris causing a fire hazard on the river was also causing severe ecological damage. A year before the ’69 fire, a Kent State University symposium had already determined that the Cuyahoga was in trouble. Their study found that accumulating sludge increased the water temperature and slowed the river’s velocity, causing anaerobic action, a reduction in oxygen levels in the water, killing off plant and animal life.
Unlike previous fires along the river over the past 100 years, the fire of 1969 became a source of shame and ridicule to the city of Cleveland and local and federal government.
Sorely embarrassed, Congress acted quickly to pass the Clean Water Act of 1972, followed by the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the United States and Canada to significantly reduce dumping and phosphorous runoff into the Lake Erie Basin. The Cuyahoga incident also inspired the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as well as the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA).
In a speech to a fledgling conservation group in Seattle in September of 1969, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson (D. Wisconsin) announced his idea for a “teach-in” on the deterioration of the environment, to spotlight issues such as oil spills, raw sewage, toxic dumps and pesticides and to spur enough of a grassroots outcry to be heard in Washington, D.C. And Earth Day was born.
Despite attempts to organize the movement into one cohesive effort, Earth Day took on a life of its own, bringing together once-disparate groups fighting for recognition of their particular environmental concerns. April 22, 1970 marks the inception of this modern environmental movement.
Today, the water quality of the Cuyahoga River has improved enough to support the return of 44 species in river reaches once devoid of life and Lake Erie has seen the return of economically important fish species such as the walleye.
In 1998, the Cuyahoga River was designated as one of the 14 American Heritage Rivers. In 1986, REM commemorated these events in their song, “Cuyahoga,” as did Adam Again’s song “River on Fire” in 1992. And the Great Lakes Brewing Company named their Burning River Pale Ale in honor of the event.
In the movies, this is the part where the triumphant music swells, the camera sweeps over cheering crowds and a closing shot of a once murky, sludge-filled, debris-strewn river now sun-sparkling, flows freely, abundant with fish and plant life once more.
But the story isn’t over. Earth Day is not just a celebration of a job well done. It is a reminder that the job is ongoing – and there is so much more to do.
Pollution is still a serious problem for America’s rivers, including the Cuyahoga, where the source is now urban runoff, combined sewer overflow and stagnation caused by dams. For this reason, the EPA includes certain areas of the Cuyahoga River Watershed as among the 43 Great Lakes Areas of Concern. The Environments Working Group (www.ewg.org) lists 50 rivers and waterways as endangered among them: the Mississippi, the Ohio, the Tennessee, the Savannah, the Missouri, the Susquehanna, the Delaware – and the Cuyahoga.
Back in the 1970’s, environmentalism was a little known concept, often attributed to hippies and “tree huggers.” Since then, greater awareness and, perhaps, economic problems have brought recycling or “going green” - and Earth Day - into fashion.