On 40th Anniversary of Cuyahoga Fire, Myths Loom Larger Than Reality

Washington, D.C.,
June 22, 2009—Today is the 40th
Anniversary of the famous Cuyahoga river fire in Cleveland, Ohio.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is celebrating the anniversary,
because it “led to positive results, including creation of the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency and passage of major environmental laws such as
the Clean Water Act in 1972 [which meant] we paid attention to how much
pollution manufacturers were putting into waterways like the Cuyahoga. The
legislation set limits on pollution, and gave EPA the power to fine industry
for violating those limits.”

Yet this received wisdom
mischaracterizes what happened in 1969 and the reaction to it.  Thanks to the work of free-market
environmental scholars like Prof. Jonathan Adler of Case
Western University
(a former CEI scholar), we know the truth about the Cuyahoga River,
which includes facts like:  

  • The fire of 1969 was not regarded as a big deal in Cleveland. The
    Cleveland Plain-Dealer covered it in 5 paragraphs on page 11 and
    firefighters were quoted as calling the blaze “unremarkable”
  • The fire was under control within 30 minutes and no TV
    crews made it there on time. The images most people remember were stock
    images of an earlier fire in 1952.
  • Local industry had in fact been trying to get the
    river cleaned up for decades. A paper company had sued to prevent the city
    dumping sewage into the river as early as 1936. A real estate company
    actually won a victory in such an attempt in 1965, but this was overturned
    by the courts.
  • What prevented clean-up was government control. The
    City of Cleveland
    claimed a ‘prescriptive right’ to use the river as a communal dumping
    ground. The State of Ohio
    operated a permit system that encouraged using the river that way.
  • Cleanup actually started after the 1952 fire, with
    fish reappearing in 1959, although this was delayed because of state and
    local government control over the river.

Competitive Enterprise Institute
Senior Fellow Iain Murray wrote
about the Cuyahoga River Fire in his 2008 book, “The
Really Inconvenient Truths: Seven Environmental Catastrophes Liberals Don’t
Want You to Know About-Because They Helped Cause Them
.” Murray said “the Cuyahoga River Fire of 1969
is an environmentalist myth. It is a myth because it was a minor incident, and
it is a myth because it actually demonstrated government’s role in
environmental degradation.” 

Murray added that “real riparian property rights would have
stopped the fires from ever happening. You don’t spit on your own doorstep.
Instead, Cleveland
declared common ownership and invited spitting.” 

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public policy group dedicated to the principles of free enterprise and limited
government.  For more information about
CEI, please visit our website at www.cei.org.