42 years on, the river fire that sparked a movement | WBEZ
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Anniversary of Cuyahoga fires igniting environmental movement

Forty-two years ago today a river in Cleveland burned – and sparked public outrage that became a national tipping point for environmental regulation.  Today, the Cuyahoga River is much cleaner, but we're still paying the price for industrial pollution in Cleveland and elsewhere in the Great Lakes.

From the way the Cuyahoga River looks today, sparkling in the sunshine in the middle of downtown Cleveland, it's impossible to imagine it was once one of the most polluted waterways in the country.  But locals over age 55 have vivid memories of the sludge and debris that once choked the river. 

Wayne Bratton has worked on the Cuyahoga for 58-years.  Bratton now gives tours about the river's infamous history. 

“The river used to bubble like a cauldron,” Bratton said.  “It had a unique smell--it was an industrial smell, a lot of it was methane that was bubbling up off the bottom of the river.”

Raw sewage floated on the surface as the river flowed past Cleveland's bustling steel mills and chemical plants.  In the 1960s, Frank Samsel ran his shipping supply company from the banks of the Cuyahoga. 

“We had one major paint company on the river which was Sherwin-Williams.  They'd clean out their tanks,” Samsel explained. “When they cleaned out the green tank, the river was green.  When they cleaned out the red tank, the river was red or blue or yellow – pick a color you like.”

Samsel said oil spills were also frequent and few bothered to clean them up.  Over the years, that oil fueled multiple fires on the river. Bratton added, by the time of the 1969 Cuyahoga fire, the burning of the river was so common, local media didn't bother to cover it.

“Just another day on the river. It was no big deal, it was just a little fire, up out of the way, it didn't mean anything,” Bratton said. “Except that it ignited the environmental movement.”

Time Magazine picked up the story and catapulted the Cuyahoga fire into national news. In no time, the Cuyahoga became the symbol for U.S. water pollution. The Cuyahoga River burning was even satirized by singer Randy Newman.

A year after the fire, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was formed. In 1972 Congress passed the Clean Water Act. Federal lawsuits forced Cleveland's industrial polluters to clean up their discharges. And the city of Cleveland invested millions to modernize its sewage treatment plants.  Frank Samsel became a contractor cleaning up oil from the Cuyahoga. He designed a 56-foot boat that could suck up flammable liquids and pick up debris, and he named it—“Putzfrau.” That’s German for cleaning lady.

“It did pretty much what we designed it do to do,” Samsel said. “The boat was built to work for about 20-years; and it was out of work in about seven.”

Samsel and his 8-man crews often worked sixteen hour-days, six days a week. He says it was filthy work.

“We wore very inexpensive rainwear,” Samsel described. “And we'd just take a knife a cut ourselves out of the rainwear because it would be black.”

More than forty years later, clean-up of the Cuyahoga River is considered a national success story. It's so much cleaner that rowing teams now share the ship channel with freighters. And about 20-miles south, between Cleveland and Akron, in the heavily-forested Cuyahoga Valley National Park, bald eagles and otters have returned to the river.

Overlooking a dam on the Cuyahoga in the national park, Kelvin Rogers watches herons fish in the shallows. He's witnessed the river's transformation firsthand. A recently-retired Ohio EPA scientist, Rogers coordinated restoration of the Cuyahoga for 20-years. He says when he started, the only fish you found here were a few carp.


“Many of those carp had deformities, like no eyes or missing some fins, so they were pretty nasty,” Rogers said. “Nowadays this is considered a steelhead fishing spot by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.”

But Rogers says the work isn't done. Government agencies and environmental groups want to restore the Cuyahoga to its pre-industrial state. So problems that diminish the quality of fish habitat, drinking water, and recreation must be fixed. This dam is one of those trouble spots. It was built in 1827 to feed water to the Ohio and Erie Canal. Rogers says the dam keeps spawning fish from migrating, so the state must take it down.

“Once we get rid of the dam here and dam at Cuyahoga Falls--the Gorge Dam-- we're going to have pretty much of a free-flowing river for like the lower 60-miles of the Cuyahoga River, allowing fish to migrate all the way from Lake Erie into Cuyahoga Falls and back,” Rogers explained.

Much of this work is getting a boost from federal funds. Over the last two years, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has allocated 775-million dollars to local projects that improve habitat and address other critical issues, like new ways to safely dispose of millions of tons of polluted sediment dredged from shipping channels. But other problems remain – from old sewers that overflow during heavy rainfall to spreading algae blooms. Fixing them will take time and money and can only be tackled if the clean up of the Great Lakes remains a priority for the region.

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