Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Cuyahoga River

Kent left a hopeful comment on my Body Burden post noting that sometimes we have to know how bad something is before we feel the urgency to fix it. Case in point, Ohio's Cuyahoga River, which caught on fire when he lived next to it in 1968 and is now greatly improved. The river had actually caught fire 12 times before! Here are some details:
  • 1868 The Cuyahoga was only one of many rivers - in Baltimore, Dearborn, and Schuykill - subject to industrial fires during this era. Glowing coals shoveled overboard from steamships were enough to set oil on the surface on fire.
  • 1912 This fire killed 5 people.
  • 1936 Oil scum on the river caught fire as a workman (who sustained 3rd degree burns) was cutting a freighter up for scrap with an acetylene torch. The blaze, which did $10,000 worth of damage, was extinguished 5 days later, but luckily before it could ignite millions of gallons of gasoline stored across and down the river.
  • 1952 The river caught fire and burned for 3 days, causing $1.5 million worth of damage. The spectacular photos, including the one above, were taken during this blaze.
  • 1969 Molten metal or sparks from the wheel of a passing railcar set fire to oil- and chemical-soaked debris floating in the river. The resulting fire made national news, although it only burned for 25 minutes. The $50,000 in damage was mainly to the railroad bridge.
This last fire was the catalyst for a number of pollution controls, including the passage of the Clean Water Act and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. The Cuyahoga River, which was once one of the most polluted rivers in the U.S. and considered "biologically dead," now meets federal standards. Although there are still issues like urban runoff and stagnation, the river previously devoid of fish now supports 44 species. The EPA calls the turnaround "amazing" and "dramatic," but the river remains notorious for having burned. "We can't go back in time and make it not happen, so let's use it to show how far we've come," said a local politician as Cuyahoga celebrated the 40th anniversary of the 1969 fire.

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