Celebrating 50 years since the last fire on the Cuyahoga River and the changes it sparked

Posted at 6:45 AM, Jun 21, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-21 06:48:53-04

CLEVELAND — Tomorrow marks 50 years since the Cuyahoga River last caught fire and in doing so, captured the attention of a nation. Well truth be told, it wasn't the June 22, 1969 fire that caught the eye of America but rather one 17 years earlier in 1952. That was the fire TIME Magazine ran photos of with the story in their August 1, 1969 edition that showed a much bigger fire engulfing a tug boat.

The issue was a hot seller with Sen. Ted Kennedy on the cover in the wake of Chappaquiddick and additional coverage of the moon landing as well.

The fire in 1969 was clearly not the first on the Cuyahoga and by no means the worst, but it just happened to come at a time when the mood was changing in the country about the condition of U.S. rivers and lakes with the Cuyahoga River set to become the poster child.

Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes and his newly elected Congressman brother Louis would go to Capitol Hill demanding action. That action would come in the form of the Clean Water Act, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which on it's web page states the Cuyahoga River fire was one of the events that led to the creation of the agency.

The cleanup of the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie that it feeds is still ongoing Sen. Rob Portman said. "It's a constant struggle."

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative which helps to monitor and protect the health of the Great Lakes has seen its funding drastically cut in each of the last three years only to be restored by a bi-partisan push back in Congress from those in the House and Senate representing the Great Lakes states.

"It helps to not just stop pollution," Portman said "but ensure we're keeping the invasive species out and stop some of the algal blooms that have come in some summers."

In addition Portman has been involved with a years long battle with the Army Corps of Engineers over the corps' wish to dump the spoils of the dredging from the Cuyahoga River back into the lake itself rather than somewhere on land.

"The problem with the dredging is you're dredging up some pollutants and then you're dumping them. We want those dredging remains to go to land where they can be contained and controlled," he said. "We've had some success there just in the last couple of years, we've won court cases and been able to win on that and right now the corps has backed off."

Sen. Sherrod Brown agrees there is a constant need to stay vigilant. "I'm old enough to remember what it was when I was a little kid," Brown said of the mess that was the river. "We made huge progress now we see a Federal Government that's turned its back and we fight back."

"We've got to be vigilant about keeping this lake clean and its too bad for our public health and for our fishing industry and for tourism and just people's, just safety," Brown said.