On June 22, 1969, just before noon, an oil slick and assorted debris caught fire under a railroad trestle on the Cuyahoga River. The fire attracted national media attention, including stories in Time and National Geographic. The image of a river ablaze seared into the nation’s emerging environmental consciousness. Former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Carol Browner probably spoke for many Americans when she said “I will never forget a photograph of flames, fire, shooting right out of the water in downtown Cleveland. It was the summer of 1969 and the Cuyahoga River was burning.”
The Cuyahoga fire was a powerful symbol of a planet in disrepair and an ever-deepening environmental crisis, and it remains so to this day. That a river could become so polluted to ignite proved the need for federal environmental regulation. Following on the heels of several best-selling books warning of ecological apocalypse and other high-profile events such as the Santa Barbara oil spill, the 1969 Cuyahoga fire spurred efforts to enact sweeping federal environmental legislation. “The burning river mobilized the nation and became a rallying point for passage of the Clean Water Act,” noted one environmental group on the fire’s 30th anniversary. The fire even inspired a song by Randy Newman, “Burn On.”
There’s a problem with this story. Much of it is myth. Oil and debris on the river’s surface did burn in 1969, and federal environmental statutes were the result, but so much else of what we “know” about the 1969 fire simply is not so. It was not evidence of rapidly declining environmental quality, nor was it clear evidence of the need for federal action.
Contrary to the impression given by Time and most commentary on the fire since, burning rivers in industrialized areas were common through the late 19th and early 20th century. Rivers and harbors once burned in Michigan, New York, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, among other states. The Cuyahoga’s first reported conflagration happened well over a century ago. Oil and debris on the river then caught fire at least a half-dozen times before 1950, often causing substantial damage to docks, ships, and other industrial properties along the crooked river’s banks. The 1936 and 1952 fires were particularly intense.
Over time, the fire hazard became great enough to threaten local shipping, prompting the first cleanup efforts on the Cuyahoga. Evidence of a clear environmental problem prompted direct local action. Boats were dispatched to skim debris from the water and fire codes were enforced on local industry. These efforts were largely successful, and the fire threat on the river subsided. In this light, the 1969 fire is best seen as a freak accident. It merited relatively little local concern, but sparked national attention due to the growing national awareness of environmental problems.
The cleanup of the Cuyahoga began before 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.
What little water-quality data is available from the time suggests early state and local efforts were having an effect. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s first National Water Quality Inventory, conducted in 1973, found significant improvements in organic waste and bacteria levels in most major waterways over the preceding decade. America’s rivers were improving even before the adoption of federal regulations in 1972, even if they still had a long way to go.
Just as water problems began to improve prior to adoption of the federal Clean Water Act, many types of air pollution began their decline before the enactment of the Clean Air Act. In both cases, the pollutants of greatest contemporary concern declined first. As the nation became wealthier, and the knowledge base improved, attention to environmental matters increased. It is well-established that wealthier societies place greater importance on environmental protection. They also have greater means to protect environmental values. The work of environmental analyst Indur Goklany strongly suggests that once wealthy societies perceive an environmental problem, they begin to address it. In the United States, this is exactly what happened. And contrary to the common fable, in most cases state and local governments were the first to act.
Why didn’t states act earlier? In the 1950s, let alone the 1910s or 1930s, environmental issues did not yet rank with concerns for economic development, technological progress, and other social ills. Policymakers at all levels of government knew little about the health effects of pollution and paid it little heed. While the environmental problems that plagued Cleveland and other parts of the nation are obvious in hindsight, the nature and extent of these problems were not always readily apparent at the time. Insofar as environmental protection was an item on the public agenda before 1969, concern focused on sanitation and drinking water, not the recreational or aesthetic values of waterways. Once the demand for greater pollution control emerged, action began.
Was federal regulation necessary? Perhaps. But consider that states were well on their way to developing comprehensive protections before the enactment of federal environmental protections. Many federal programs enacted in the 1970s were modeled on preexisting state and local efforts. Today, state governments continue to lead, addressing issues ignored by federal policymakers and inventing the next generation of environmental controls. From wetlands protection to brownfields redevelopment to multimedia permitting, states remain at the forefront of environmental protection. If federal regulation were never adopted, the nation’s growing desire for greater environmental protection likely would have been channeled toward other ends, resulting in greater state and local regulation, the evolution of common-law doctrines to address ecological concerns, or other measures to enhance environmental quality. There is no reason to believe that the adoption of federal command-and-control regulations was the only means of providing the level of environmental protection demanded by an ecologically awakened public.
The 1969 fire was a catalyst for change because it was the wrong event at the right time. It was neither an impressive fire, nor one with a significant ecological impact. It may have brought greater attention to the serious environmental problems of the time, but it did not represent a continuing decline in water quality, let alone worsening environmental degradation nationwide. Contrasted with the relevant indifference to burning rivers in decades past, the public outcry over the 1969 fire signified that increasingly wealthy Americans now wanted to devote greater resources to environmental protection–and they likely would have even in the absence of federal regulations.
–Jonathan H. Adler is associate professor of law at Case Western Reserve University and the 2004 Julian Simon Fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Montana.