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Cuyahoga River Burns Again

Cuyahoga River Burns Again

June 22, 1969
Randy Newman, “Burn On”
Cuyahoga River Burns Again
A fire tug fights flames on the Cuyahoga River near downtown Cleveland, Ohio, where oil and other industrial wastes caught fire June 25, 1952. (AP Photo)

Cuyahoga River Burns Again

Now, the Lord can make you tumble,

The Lord can make you turn,

The Lord can make you overflow,

But the Lord can't make you burn.

--Randy Newman


             On June 22, 1969, the oil-sodden floating debris on the Cuyahoga River  near Cleveland, Ohio ignited (perhaps by sparks from a passing train) and burned with flames reported up to five stories high. 


             This was simply the latest of several Cuyahoga River fires during the century. Although fire-fighters extinguished this blaze in a half-hour or so, it caused $50,000 in damage. The Cleveland, Ohio river (and nearly every other urban industrial river in the USA) had been an open sewer for industrial waste, through the times when factory production and easy release of raw sewage was more important than  their environmental impact.
             Time magazine covered the story. Since Time didn't have a picture of the June 22 fire, it used a picture from June 25, 1952. In its article, Time noted that, " The Potomac left Washington 'stinking from the 240 million gallons of wastes that are flushed into it daily' while “Omaha’s meatpackers fill the Missouri River with animal grease balls as big as oranges.”  [Time magazine article]

             1962's Silent Spring by Rachel Carson had lighted a fuse and it seemed this Cuyahoga River fire, however small and common, had tipped the balance of popular opinion. 

             Like many other activist issues of the 60s, environmentalism had come to the fore.  In exactly 10 months, on April 22, 1970, Americans observed the first Earth Day. An estimated 20 million people nationwide attended events.  Senator Gaylord Nelson promoted Earth Day, calling upon students to fight for environmental causes and oppose environmental degradation with the same energy that they displayed in opposing the Vietnam War. 
             Later that year, on November 20, the Nixon administration announced a halt to residential use of the pesticide DDT as part of a total phase-out.

             On December 2, 1970,  the Environmental Protection Agency began operating under director William Ruckelshaus.

             On October 18, 1972, the Clean Water Act went into effect.
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