The Cuyahoga: A river reborn?

Ohio's Cuyahoga River, sporting blue water that only existed in the fevered imagination of the painter

Ohio's Cuyahoga River, sporting blue water that only existed in the fevered imagination of the painter

(Background information on the Cuyahoga River here.) In the mid 1950s, a very young and very excited resident of Cleveland, Ohio (and future waterblogger) took a ride in an elevator to the observation deck of the city’s 52-story Terminal Tower, then on the short list of the world’s tallest buildings.

Decades later, the not young and less-than-excited man that the boy became has only one vivid recollection of the distant afternoon: A river gone terribly orange. From the deck’s 700-foot vantage point, the winding Cuyahoga River–instead of the limpid bright blue flow that inspired his crayola riverine renderings–was a ghastly rust-orange soup that didn’t seem to be moving at all.

The 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River that served as a catalyst for the passage of the Clean Water Act

The 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River that served as a catalyst for the passage of the Clean Water Act

He remembers that his younger self was appalled, confused and feeling his childhood innocence slipping away. His father responded to his frantic questions with his usual impatience. “Stop worrying about the river,” he snapped. “It’s just dirty from the factories. Look,  you can see our neighborhood from here.”

Dad could just as well have said, “Hey kid, at least it’s not on fire!” Three or four years before, in 1952–when the boy was five–oil and other volatile industrial pollutants dumped into the flow ignited to produce the largest of many fires that had plagued the curvaceous Cuyahoga since the late 19th century. As this Wikipedia article notes, there were several more fires after 1952  before the 1969 conflagration that gained wide public attention and inspired Randy Newman’s  “Burn On” and R.E.M.’s “Cuyahoga.”

From Wikipedia, a 1968 excerpt of a Kent State University study of the river, one year before the fire:

The surface is covered with the brown oily film observed upstream as far as the Southerly Plant effluent. In addition, large quantities of black heavy oil floating in slicks, sometimes several inches thick, are observed frequently. Debris and trash are commonly caught up in these slicks forming an unsightly floating mess. . . .The velocity is negligible, and sludge accumulates on the bottom. . . . Animal life does not exist. . . .The color changes from gray-brown to rusty brown as the river proceeds downstream. Transparency is less than 0.5 feet in this reach. This entire reach is grossly polluted.

The difference between all the previous fires–essentially ignored outside of Ohio–and the 1969 event was that burgeoning environmental consciousness meant that a river catching fire was finally newsworthy.  Again from Wikipedia:

Fires erupted on the river several more times before June 22, 1969, when a river fire captured the attention of Time magazine, which described the Cuyahoga as the river that “oozes rather than flows” and in which a person “does not drown but decays.”

The fire was one of many ecological calamities that woke people up to the need for regulation and led to the eventual passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972. The New York Times recently ran an article about the so-called rebirth of  the Cuyahoga River (registration may be required), touting it as an example of sound environmental practices gone right. Yes, the fact that there are actually fish or any other life form in the formerly totally toxic stew is an achievement of sorts.

A river reborn, gushes the New York Times. I suppose. But come on, it’s been forty years. The river is by no means healthy, and I doubt that a pristine Cuyahoga will be a high priority  for the cash-strapped municipal and state governments.


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