Cuyahoga River Fire

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Cuyahoga River Fire Nov. 3, 1952.jpg
Cuyahoga River Fire Nov. 3, 1952. Courtesy of Cleveland Press Collection at Cleveland State University Library.

Cleveland, OH was once known as a major industrial center within the United States.  As the 1960’s came to an end, so did the country’s reliance on industrialized manufacturing.  However, Cleveland continued production which when paired with a lack in sewer and waste disposal regulation maintained the littering of the Cuyahoga River.  On June 22, 1969, around 12pm, floating pieces of oil slicked debris were ignited on the river by sparks caused by a passing train.  Specifically, following an investigation, the cause was determined to be the oily debris trapped beneath two wooden trestles, rigid support frames, located around the Campbell Rd. hill in Southeast Cleveland.  The fire was determined to have reached heights of over five stories and lasted between twenty and thirty minutes.  There was reported to be around $50,000 of damages including: $45,000 from the destruction of the bridge owned by Norfolk & Western Railway Co. and $5,000 from the Newburgh & South Shore Railway trestle. 

The Cuyahoga River was once one of the most polluted rivers in the United States as represented by the multitude of times it has caught fire, a recorded number of thirteen starting in 1868.  The most potent blaze occurred in 1952 which caused over $1.3 million in damages however, the most fatal fire happened in 1912 with a documented five deaths.  The 1969 fire, which did not incur maximum damages or fatally wound any citizen, was the most covered incident occuring on the river.  This was in part because of the developing precedence that sanitation held over industrial actions; the United States was becoming more eco-aware.  Also, due to the shift from industry to technology, waste dumping to recycling Time Magazine produced an article about the incident.  This brought mass amount of attention to the Cleveland area and added pressure for hygienic regulation.

Inspired by the 1969 river fire, Congress was determined to resolve the issue of land pollution, not just in Cleveland, but throughout the United States.  The legislature passed the National Environment Protection Act (NEPA) which was signed into law on January 1, 1970.  This act helped establish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which would be given the duties to manage environmental risks and regulate various sanitary-specific policies.  One of the first legislations that the EPA put-forth was the Clean Water Act (1972), which mandated that all rivers throughout the United States be hygienic enough to safely allow mass amounts of swimmers and fish within the water by 1983.  Since the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District has invested over $3.5 billion towards the purification of the river and the development of new sewer systems.  There is a projection that over the next thirty years the city of Cleveland will further endow over $5 billion to the upkeep of the wastewater system.  The river is now home to about sixty different species of fish, there has not been another river fire since 1969, and yearly new waste management programs develop to ensure the sanitation of Cleveland’s waterways.    

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