Today is the 35th anniversary of the infamous Cuyahoga River fire in Cleveland -- one of the seminal events in the history of environmental law. Oil and debris apparently accumulated under a railroad trestle and briefly caught fire. News of the "burning river" spread across the nation, helping to galvanize the emergent environmental movement.
After all, if a river could catch fire, environmental problems must have gotten really bad. Indeed, many argue the river fire sparked the eventual passage of the Clean Water Act.
The story of the Cuyahoga River fire is a canonical tale, but my friend Jonathan Adler -- a law professor at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University -- argues in the Fordham Environmental Law Review that much of the story is a fable.
While many point to the fire as evidence of ever-worsening environmental conditions, Jonathan argues that water quality had already begun to improve before the fire. The Cuyahoga River was heavily polluted, to be sure, but it was starting to turn the corner.
From the 1880s to 1950s, fires on industrial rivers and harbors were rather common, and rarely elicited comment. Much pollution was accepted as the inevitable and unavoidable cost of industrialization. As the nation became richer, attitudes changed, and cleanup efforts began, even before the adoption of federal laws. River fires were rare by the 1960s, largely due to state and local cleanup efforts.
The 1969 fire attracted national attention more because of increased environmental consciousness than because environmental quality was steadily getting worse. It's a complex story, but quite interesting. I'm not an environmental expert, but Jonathan is, and I've found his work to be trustworthy and eminently readable.
One item of note from Jonathan's article. The fire received national attention when highlighted in Time, but the picture of a river aflame accompanying the article wasn't of the 1969 fire at all -- it was of a much worse 1952 fire. There are apparently no pictures of the 1969 fire itself because the fire was out before any photographers arrived. So the image many remember of the river on fire isn't of the famous fire at all.