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I have a confession.  There's a movie I'll stop and watch every time it comes on TV, though I'm a bit embarrassed to admit it.  It's a 1989 flick starring Tom Berrenger and Charlie Sheen, with a young Wesley Snipes wa-a-a-y down in the billing, called Major League.  I'll bet you know it.

I like to catch it just as it comes on, because then I can listen to the music playing over the opening credits, a favorite old Randy Newman song from his 1972 album Sail Away:

There's a red moon rising
On the Cuyahoga River
Rolling into Cleveland to the lake

(Repeat)

There's an oil barge winding
Down the Cuyahoga River
Rolling into Cleveland to the lake

(Repeat)

Cleveland city of light, city of magic
Cleveland city of light you're calling me
Cleveland, even now I can remember
'Cause the Cuyahoga River
Goes smokin' through my dreams

Come on inside, where the Cuyahoga River will go smokin' through the national consciousness.

When an apparent spark from a train passing over a bridge at the Republic Steel plant in Cleveland set the Cuyahoga River on fire just before noon on June 22, 1969, it wasn't the first time the river had caught fire.  There had been previous fires in 1868, 1883, 1887, 1912, 1922, 1936, 1941, 1948, 1949, 1951, and 1952   It wasn't even the worst fire on the Cuyahoga, for that matter.  The 1936 fire was far worse, as was the 1952 fire that burned for three days and caused $1.8 million in damage..  

Nor was the Cuyahoga the only river in America ever to catch fire.   The Rouge River through Dearborn, Michigan, the Schuylkill in Philadelphia, the Buffalo River through Buffalo, New York, in fact many rivers in heavily-industrialized cities, as well as harbors such as Baltimore Harbor [This appears to have been a river leading into Baltimore Harbor, not the harbor itself. link]  and New York had caught fire at one time or another.  I have found reference to the Chicago River catching fire in 1889 and 1899, but in fact there were many others -- as long as property was not being destroyed, the fire department just let the fires burn and did not even bother to record them.  

Because of the Cuyahoga'a propensity to ignite, the city stationed fireboats along its course through the city in order to respond quickly when fires broke out.  Local fireboats near the scene in 1969 had the fire out in less than half an hour, before newspaper photographers even arrived on the scene.  The only photos that exist from the 1969 fire are of the aftermath  -- none exist of the fire in progress.  It was such an inconsequential event in Cleveland that the fire chief wasn't even called, the local newspapers ran only a couple of small after-the-fact pictures and buried a short item deep inside.  For Cleveland locals, the 1969 fire was a yawner.

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Image of the 1952 Cuyahoga River fire.  (NOAA)

The fire did not go unnoticed elsewhere, though.  National media picked up the story, although the actual photographic documentation of the fire was so unimpressive that Time magazine ran a dramatic photo of the 1952 fire instead.  

On August 1, 1969, Time magazine reported on the fire and on the condition of the Cuyahoga River. The magazine stated,

Some River! Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows. "Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown," Cleveland's citizens joke grimly. "He decays". . . The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration dryly notes: "The lower Cuyahoga has no visible signs of life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes." It is also -- literally -- a fire hazard.

Ohio History Central: Cuyahoga River Fire

In the national media and the nascent modern environmental movement the condition of the Cuyahoga river became something of a cause célèbre in an emerging debate over the condition of our environment.  There was really not much to debate.

The United States by the middle of the twentieth century was a filthy place.  The 45-mile stretch of the Cuyahoga River from Akron to Cleveland, where researchers in the nineteen-seventies would often come back with fish counts of ten fish -- not species, but individual fish, usually sick and deformed -- was described in those days:

{George D. Simpson, Lamont W. Curtis, and Henry K. Merkle } (1968) concluded that this stretch of the Cuyahoga River did not meet any criteria for any use.  {Charles C.} Davis (1968), in his report on Lake Erie’s water quality, described the Cuyahoga River as a "cloaca"-- likening it to a birds’ combined bladder and rectum-- collecting and concentrating urinary, fecal and reproductive wastes, and discharging them out of the system-- and into Lake Erie.
Jeff Zeitler, "Restoration of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio, 1968-present"

Lake Erie, for its part, was characterized as a dying lake at the time.  But the condition of the Cuyahoga and Lake Erie were not extraordinary -- many rivers and lakes in the United States suffered similar levels of pollution.  Air quality was so poor that severity of smog in urban areas was sometimes measured by its death toll, as in 1948 when smog in Donora, Pennsylvania killed 20 and made 7,000 ill.  Litter was everywhere and the grimy deposits of factory smokestacks soiled the urban landscape and corroded automobile finishes.  Many people had no compunction about dumping garbage wherever it was convenient.  It was enough to bring a fella to tears.

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Well before a passing train ignited the Cuyahoga, many Americans had had enough.  Organizations such as Keep American Beautiful, who sponsored the Crying Indian ad campaigned (by whatever motives they were driven) to reduce litter beginning in 1953.   Lady Bird Johnson worked during her husband's term to reduce litter and remove eyesores from along the still-growing interstate highways system.  Conservationist organizations like the Sierra Club worked to preserve habitat.  Books like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring were educating the public on the growing threat to the environment.  Congress, for its part, passed an array of bills during the two decades preceding the Cuyahoga fire:

Air:
1955 - Air Pollution Control Act PL 84-159
1963 - Clean Air Act PL 88-206
1965 - Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act PL 89-272
1966 - Clean Air Act Amendments PL 89-675
1967 - Air Quality Act PL 90-148
1969 - National Environmental Policy Act PL 91-190

Water:
1948 - Water Pollution Control Act PL 80-845
1965 - Water Quality Act PL 89-234
1966 - Clean Waters Restoration Act PL 89-753
1969 - National Environmental Policy Act PL 91-190

Land:
1947 - Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act
1964 - Wilderness Act PL 88-577
1968 - Scenic Rivers Preservation Act PL 90-542
1969 - National Environmental Policy Act PL 91-190
Wikipedia: Environmental Protection Agency

A look inside some of these bills might reveal somewhat toothless legislation  -- if not business-friendly, at least business-deferential -- and in other cases, the federal legislation would be revealed to be clearly following the lead of state and local regulatory pioneers.  But legislation was being passed and the movement to clean up the country was underway.

The motivation of Congress for its interest in the environment was perhaps less about clean air and water and more about bringing home federal dollars to district, but it was at least moving in the right direction.  One of the people who had emerged as a leader of the movement in Congress was a Senator from Maine, Edmund Muskie.  Paul Milazzo, author of the book The Unlikely Environmentalists: Congress and Clean Water, 1945-1972, described Muskie's emergence as an environmental leader in an interview:

When Edmund Muskie came to the Senate in 1958, Milazzo says, Senate Democratic leader Lyndon Johnson denied him the plum committee seats he wanted, consigning him instead to the Public Works, Government Operations, and Housing committees. The resourceful Muskie, however, landed the chair of the humble Air and Water Pollution Subcommittee of Public Works, and transformed it into a vehicle for what Milazzo calls "legislative entrepreneurship" — taking the initiative to open up a new area of lawmaking.

Air and Water Pollution "was a nothing subcommittee," Milazzo says. "But Muskie decided, ‘I might as well make the best of it.’ That’s what a political entrepreneur is. He used his committee as a springboard."
Jim Phillips, "The Unlikely Environmentalists"

By developing extensive knowledge in an obscure area of law and regulation, backed up by a team of expert advisors, Muskie combined policy expertise with his skills as a consensus-builder to made his committee and himself a powerful force in the Senate, ushering increasingly important legislation through Congress.  And while Muskie's development of the  Air and Water Pollution Subcommittee was a case of making the best of a less-than-optimum outcome, his interest in the environment was not exactly cynical.

A man who worked closely with Muskie for some 20 years said he agrees with Milazzo that the senator took lemon committee assignments, and made legislative lemonade. Former Muskie Chief of Staff Leon G. Billings insists, however, that his boss felt a genuine concern for the environment, stemming from his conservationist background and his belief in a progressive, activist government.
ibid.

That belief in a activist government would result in the federal government assuming a role in environmental legislation that had previously deferred to the states.  The legislative leaders in Congress, like Muskie, were poised to turn the federal government into a leader, not a follower.

---------------------------------------

So action to clean up the environment was taking place at the national level under the leadership of committed legislators.  But it was also unfolding on the state and local level.  In fact, even the maligned Cuyahoga River was the subject of cleanup plans that had begun well before the notorious fire:

The cleanup of the Cuyahoga had already begun {when} the 1969 fire drew national attention. Local industry and municipal leaders formed the Cuyahoga River Basin Water Quality Committee to monitor local water quality. Then in 1968, local voters approved $100 million to finance local cleanup. "We were already doing the things we needed to clean up things there, and then the fire happened," recalled Cleveland utilities director Ben S. Stefanski II at the time. While still dirty by today's standards, progress was being made.
Jonathan H. Adler, "Smoking Out the Cuyahoga Fire Fable"

While Adler's free market ideology might lead him to overstate the degree to which cleanup efforts had progressed (and conveniently dismiss the need for federal intervention), it is clear that some local commitment was being made to clean up the Cuyahoga.  But the task ahead was an enormous one, and it's doubtful that local initiative could have achieved the long-term results that a federal mandate could accomplish.

--------------------------------------

Less than a year after the fire, on April 22, 1970, an event initiated by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson called Earth Day was held for the first time, to call attention to the need to protect the environment and to educate and rally the public behind environmental issues.  In 1967, Congress had passed the Air Quality Act, an update to existing clean air legislation, and even as the fire was burning was debating the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, spurred by the Santa Barbara, California oil spill of January 28, 1969 and finally signed into law January 1, 1970, the act which brought us the Environmental Impact Statement.  Six months later, President Richard Nixon announced the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency under an executive order.  

The drive to clean up the environment was an idea whose time had come, and would have gone forward regardless of whether a wall of flames had floated -- however briefly -- through the middle of Cleveland.  But a good rallying-point never hurt a campaign, and as those things go, the Cuyahoga fire was pretty hard to beat.  In the wake of the fire, attention turned to water, and work began on a comprehensive law to regulate the discharge of pollutants into the nation's rivers, lakes, and oceans.

Rising to this challenge, however, and adapting somewhat to the new conceptual landscape {of the emerging, more holistically-oriented environmental movement -- ds}, Muskie ended up helping to create what Milazzo calls in his book "one of the postwar era’s most complex and influential pieces of environmental legislation," the Clean Water Act. This law and the 1970 Clean Air Act "marked a sea change in environmental law," he writes, concentrating regulatory power at the federal level, setting strict enforcement standards and timetables, and putting the burden of proof on polluters.
From 1972 to 1989, the federal government spent more money — $56 billion — on municipal sewage treatment, one major outcome of the Clean Water Act, according to one report. Total federal, state, and local expenditures were more than $128 billion. From 1970 to 1985, the percentage of the U.S. population served by wastewater treatment plants rose from 42 to 74.
Jim Phillips, "The Unlikely Environmentalists"

The act contained six parts:
Title I - Research and Related Programs;  
Title II - Grants for Construction of Treatment Works, under which some of the municipal sewage treatment facilities mentioned above were funded;
Title III - Standards and enforcement, the meat of the enforcement provisions, prohibiting discharges into waters except with a permit, technology-based standards for municipal and industrial sources, mandated the establishment of site-specific allowable pollutant levels for individual water bodies, established penalties for non-compliance, required military bases, national parks and other federal facilities comply with the act, and provided funding for education, training, and demonstration projects;
Title IV - Permits and licenses, covering permitting for discharges, dredge and fill operations, wetlands management, etc,;
Title V - General Provisions covering citizen lawsuits (specifically allowing them, not restricting them!) and whistleblower protection; and
Title VI - State Water Pollution Control Revolving Funds, to provide financial assistance to local governments for wastewater treatment, nonpoint source pollution control and estuary protection.

It was, above all, an act with teeth.

----------------------------------

In two short months will be the 40th anniversary of the day the Cuyahoga River ignited in a conflagration that in turn helped ignite the modern environmental movement.  In the years since, the waters of our country have become cleaner; the Cuyahoga, for its part, was named in 1988 as merely one of the 43 most polluted rivers on the Great Lakes.  Sarcasm aside, while many of the country's most polluted rivers and lakes might not be something you would want to swim in yet, they have been improving over the past four decades.  And even among the worst of them, that improvement can sometimes be dramatic:

But when the EPA crews went back last summer -- after hearing unexpectedly high unofficial counts from Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District officials who also tally aquatic life in the river -- they found 40 different fish species in the river, including steelhead trout, northern pike and other clean-water fish.
"It's been an absolutely amazing recovery," said Steve Tuckerman of the Ohio EPA's Twinsburg office, who made those first reports in 1984. "I wouldn't have believed that this section of the river would have this dramatic of a turnaround in my career, but it has."
The result of those fish samples could be that the important middle section of the river -- from just north of Kent in Portage County through Akron to Harvard Avenue in Cleveland -- will now meet U.S. EPA standards for aquatic life habitat -- that's both fish and insects -- under the federal Clean Water Act.
Cleveland.com: Michael Scott, "After the flames: The story behind the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire and its recovery"

What is perhaps most surprising is that improvements noted above took place during a period of predominantly hostile administrations more than willing to capitulate to the will of business interests.  Still, despite making progress, results have still fallen short of ideal.  The Sierra Club summed up the current state of affairs:

In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act -- a landmark piece of environmental legislation that set a goal of eliminating pollution from all of our nation's lakes, rivers, and coastal waters. The Clean Water Act has been responsible for significant improvements in the quality of our lakes and rivers, and the EPA estimates that the law keeps more than 900 million pounds of sewage and a billion pounds of toxic chemicals out of our waterways every year.

Unfortunately, America is still a long way from achieving the goal of cleaning up ALL of the nation's waterways. In fact, the majority of Americans live within 10 miles of polluted water -- water that is unsafe for drinking, fishing or swimming.

The goals of the Clean Water Act are still achievable -- all that's missing is the will of our leaders to achieve them.
Sierra Club: Clean Water Campaign Overview

The Sierra Club article was written during the Bush administration.  What they called for was never going to happen with the Republican foxes in charge of the regulatory henhouse.  But today is a new day and our leaders are different leaders.  Leaders with the will to achieve.

-------------------------------------------

One last thing in closing.  I've seen a suggestion made in some quarters that the Randy Newman song Burn On (quoted in the introduction) had some influence on the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972.  The claim seems to be based solely on the chronology that the release of Newman's Sail Away album from which the track originates occurred in May of 1972, before the signing of the Clean Water Act on October 18, 1972.  But that can't be taken as any evidence of cause and effect, and in fact ignores the sometimes glacial pace of Congress.  The Clean Water Act, it turns out, was actually introduced in the Senate by Edmund Muskie on October 28, 1971, passed the Senate November 2, 1971  and the House on March 29, 1972.  The final version of the bill was already being hammered out in conference when Newman's album was released.  

But it's a good song nonetheless.  If you find yourself in a lull in activity during Earth Day this coming Wednesday, you might want to join arms with some of your neighbors and sing a few bars.  And ponder those days not so very long ago when a river of flames could flow through the middle of an American city.

                                           
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So that, dear Kossacks, is where regulation comes from, not from some bored bureaucrat sitting in an office in Washington trying to think up ways to make life miserable and expensive for some innocent and unsuspecting businessman, but from real human suffering and tragedy brought about, all too often, by people who shirk what should be obvious responsibilities, who neglect basic diligence, who sacrifice safety and health for profit.  They bring suffering on those who trusted them to operate responsibly, and society adopts measures to make sure it never happens again.  We have to force them, through regulation, to behave as they should have been behaving all along.  That's how Regulation came to be.

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Past installments of "How Regulation came to be":
How Regulation came to be: 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act
How Regulation came to be: The Iroquois Theater Fire
How Regulation came to be:  Radium Girls - Part I
How Regulation came to be:  Radium Girls - Part II
How Regulation came to be:  Radium Girls - Part III
How Regulation came to be:  Construction Summer

Originally posted to dsteffen on Sun Apr 19, 2009 at 02:54 PM PDT.

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