Cuyahoga River Catches Fire, Setting Off a Series of Pollution Control Legislation

On June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire.

This dramatic event, which got international news coverage, is still a reminder of the need to protect the environment. But this blot on the American environment actually led to positive results, including creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and passage of major environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act in 1972.

Because of the Clean Water Act, we paid attention to how much pollution manufacturers were putting into waterways like the Cuyahoga. The legislation set limits on pollution, and gave EPA the power to fine industry for violating those limits. Sewage treatment plants were improved and new sewer lines added.

Why aren't there any photos of the 1969 fire?

Rivers catching fire was not that rare an occurrence in the United States in the 20th century. (Chicago River, IL (1899), Passaic River, NY (1918), Buffalo River, NY (1968)). Also the 1969 fire burned for less than half an hour, so no newspaper managed to get a photo before it was extinguished. There were photos of the damage to nearby structures, however.

The fire -- a brief Sunday afternoon flare-up of oil-soaked debris likely ignited by either molten steel or a spark from a passing rail car -- was doused by local firefighting tugboat crews. The story barely made the newspapers the next day.
But the effect of that two-hour flare-up has lasted four decades.
Today, the river fire stands as an enduring image of progress gone wrong.

The 1969 Cuyahoga River fire helped spur an avalanche of water pollution control activities resulting in the Clean Water Act, Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and the creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA). As a result, large point sources of pollution on the Cuyahoga have received significant attention from the OEPA in recent decades. These events are referred to in Randy Newman's 1972 song "Burn On", R.E.M.'s 1986 song "Cuyahoga", and Adam Again's 1992 song "River on Fire". Great Lakes Brewing Company of Cleveland, Ohio name their Burning River Pale Ale after the event.

Water quality has improved and, partially in recognition of this improvement, the Cuyahoga River was designated as one of 14 American Heritage Rivers in 1998. Pollution remains, however, including urban runoff, nonpoint source problems, combined sewer overflows, and stagnation due to water impounded by dams. For this reason, the Environmental Protection Agency classified portions of the Cuyahoga River Watershed as one of 43 Great Lakes Areas of Concern. The most polluted portions of the river now generally meet established aquatic life water quality standards except near dam impoundments. The reasons for not meeting standards near the dam pools are habitat and fish passage issues rather than water quality. River reaches that were once devoid of fishes now support 44 species. The most recent survey in 2008 revealed the two most common species in the river were Hogsuckers and Spotfin Shiners, both moderately sensitive to water quality. Habitat issues within the 5.6 miles (9.0 km) navigation channel still preclude a robust fishery in that reach. Recreation water quality standards (using bacteria as indicators) are generally met during dry weather conditions, but are often exceeded during significant rains due to non-point sources and combined sewer overflows.