How a Burning River Sparked a Passion for Clean Water

Today marks the anniversary of infamous 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River. As a native Clevelander, I’ve taken the opportunity to learn more about this important event in our city’s history. As I now understand, river fires weren’t all that uncommon during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As Case law professor Jonathan Adler explains in a great Washington Post piece, the Cuyahoga caught fire at least 13 times, as did rivers in many industrial cities including Baltimore, Buffalo, and Philadelphia.

In response to the frequency and destructiveness of Cuyahoga River fires-- the November, 1952 fire caused $1.5 million of damage, destroying 3 tugboats, 3 buildings, and the ship repair yards belonging to Great Lakes Towing Company-- much had actually been done in the decades leading up to the 1969 fire to improve water quality. As evidence of these improvements, the fire of 1969 only burned for 20 minutes and damaged two railroad trestles, causing only $50,000 of damage. By the time of the famous fire, Cleveland’s steel mills began to adopt pollution controls and in 1968, Cleveland voters overwhelmingly supported a $100 million bond to remediate the Cuyahoga through sewer system modernization and debris removal.

As a Clevelander, I’m proud to know that Cleveland was leading the charge for environmental protection before the Clean Water Act of 1972, and even before the fire that became a source of national disgust and outrage in the pages of Time magazine. Interestingly, the photo that made Cleveland a punchline of jokes around the country and that “spurred the Clean Water Act”, according to the public narrative, wasn’t from the 1969. No photos exist of those brief flames. Rather, that outrage was due to imagery of the more destructive 1952 fire and to the mentality of an earlier generation.

We also celebrate the Clean Water Act today, which did in fact make great strides to regulate individual polluters. Another victory is more recent. Choose your turn of phrase, but over the years the legislation became “diluted”, “watered down”, “less (ful)filling”. More and more bodies of water were exempted from the Clean Water Act through actions culminating in rulings and policies developed by the federal government in 2000’s. For 46% of Ohioans, that meant that their sources of drinking water were not adequately protected by the Clean Water Act. But don’t worry, the story has a fairy tale ending. In May of this year, after a decade of work, federal EPA issued a rule correcting these earlier actions, and restoring the enforceability of the Clean Water Act as authored in 1972.

As brewers, we rely on the availability of clean drinking water, and we had a chance to discuss the issue with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy at the Craft Brewer’s Conference in April. At that time, there was acrimony about the proposed rule and the Administrator urged us to let common sense rule the day.Indeed, more than 87% of public comments were in support of the proposed rule.

So on a day that has traditionally been considered a black spot in Cleveland’s history, I’m hoisting a pint of our Burning River Pale Ale to commemorate our City’s leadership in environmental protection. There are still water quality issues affecting the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie and we urge you to remain vigilant in protecting our resources. And don’t forget to join us for Burning River Fest on August 28-29 to toast to our City together.

Saul Kliorys
Sustainability Manager


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