By Mike Mikulka
CHICAGO — As we mark this year as the 45th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, the burning Cuyahoga River has been relegated to an urban legend and an historical artifact. Countless beers and festivals have enshrined its image as commonplace. Books have been written.
The reality of living with floating industrial waste in Cleveland’s backyard has almost been lost to time. Almost.
The “fire” on June 22, 1969, started near The Republic Steel Mills from a splatter of molten metal falling on oil and trash floating on the Cuyahoga River. Firemen put it out before the press photographers arrived – and it made little “noise” in Cleveland. Just another fire on a river that had ignited many times before.
But this time, added to the mix, was the charismatic Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of a major city when elected in 1967. National reporters took up residence in the city to report on everything he did, no matter how small. The late Carl Stokes held a press conference at the site on the day following the fire.
A few months later, Time magazine decided to cover it, with a dramatic “file photo” of a much more threatening fire on the Great Cuyahoga 17 years before. A river on fire — it was enough of a contradiction to capture the American imagination.
Stokes testified before Congress and advocated for federal legislation with his brother Louis, a congressman. All the attention eventually helped bring about the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and passage of the federal Clean Water Act of 1972.
Forty-five years later, the Cuyahoga River is rightfully a beneficiary of the Clean Water Act, which required that all rivers and lakes be swimmable and support aquatic life. The river’s water quality vastly improved in the following decades, and business investors were drawn in, converting parts of the Flats into an entertainment district featuring restaurants, dance clubs and music venues.
Since the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District has invested more than $3.5 billion towards river discharge cleanup and the development of new sewer systems, with more than $3 billion to come, all because of the requirements of the Clean Water Act. The river supports 60 species of fish, and there have been no more river fires.
The river, described in 1969 as “biologically dead,” is alive again, because of the EPA and its implementation of the Clean Water Act. Cleveland is “the mistake on the lake” no longer.
But just when we can applaud the EPA’s progress and build on it, the Trump administration is going back. Back to the days when industry could pollute with impunity and interstate issues, such as algal blooms in the lake, festered and were ignored. Back to the days when profit-makers were favored over the anglers and swimmers and when polluters rained down toxins with impunity on communities of color in the cities.
Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes and his brother, the late U.S. Rep. Louis Stokes, went before Congress to demand change.
Like them, we must demand a new commitment to the EPA’s mission and the Clean Water Act. A thriving river and lake leads to a more healthful populace and an appealing big city.
Carl Stokes understood that the cleanup of an industrial area required massive investments in the urban landscape. From 1972 to 2017, the nation was willing to make those investments and, as a result, city waterways throughout the nation have flourished.
We must work with Congress to complete Stokes’ vision for Cleveland and the rest of the country. We cannot go back to the days when rivers caught fire. We cannot recontaminate the lakes we fought so hard to clean up. We must demand that EPA be fully funded to safeguard clean water resources in Cleveland and the nation. Unlike this administration which would diminish regulations, we must protect and strengthen the Clean Water Act for now and for future generations.