June 22, 1969 — a day that will always live in infamy in Cleveland. That day, the Cuyahoga River caught fire. Yes, the river burned and sent thick noxious smoke into the city and did serious damage to a couple of bridges to boot. A day that cemented the insult about Cleveland: The Mistake on the Lake.
What burned, of course, was an oil slick floating on top of a river that was so saturated with industrial sludge that it “oozes rather than flows,” according to a Time magazine story. It wasn’t the first time that poor, polluted river went up in flames. In fact, when Time covered the 1969 fire, it didn’t have a photo of the event so it ran one of the even larger Cuyahoga fire of 1952.
Nor was the Cuyahoga the only river filled to over-flowing with various kinds of toxic waste in the middle of the 20th century. Even in their cockpits, airline pilots flying into Philadelphia in the 1950s could smell the stink of the Delaware River at 5,000 feet. Meatpackers in Omaha dumped so much animal waste into the Missouri River that “grease-balls the size of oranges” floated down into the Mississippi.
The fire of June 22, 1969, focused the nation’s attention on the state of America’s water quality and helped galvanize support for a series of environmental laws. One of the results of that fire came the following year when Republican President Richard Nixon signed an executive order creating the Environmental Protection Agency. A bipartisan coalition in both houses of Congress then ratified the order.
The EPA’s primary job has been to enforce the environmental laws Congress has passed starting in the 1970s, and to issue regulations about what you can and cannot put into our air, into our water and into our soil. Congress passed the “Superfund” Act in 1980 after residents of Love Canal began complaining about the toxic waste from buried chemicals that was leaking into their basements. And after many of those people were diagnosed with leukemia and other cancers. The EPA is responsible for remediating places like that.
Put simply, the EPA has been charged with cleaning up the messes left by our industrial economy, and in case you think that industry might just take care of that on its own, remember the lead that used to be in your gasoline. Oil companies began adding lead to gas right after the First World War. As early as 1924, 35 employees of Standard Oil had been diagnosed with lead poisoning. But it took the EPA to phase out lead from gasoline, a process finally completed in 1986.
Now Donald Trump proposes to neuter the EPA by gutting its budget. Oh, the laws will still stand, but no one will be around to enforce them. If you think you don’t like environmental regulations, I invite you visit places where such regulations are lax and unenforced.
Poland still burns lots of coal, and this winter the coal smog has been so bad in Warsaw that Polish health officials liken breathing the air there to smoking six cigarettes a day. In China, the air pollution (again, mostly from coal) is so pernicious in major cities that health authorities there estimate it is killing one million people each year. Colleagues of mine in China look at our EPA with a mixture of jealousy and desperation.
Here’s the dirty little secret about the EPA. It has been pretty effective at doing the things it has been charged to do. The air and water are cleaner than they were in the 1960s, and the lead is gone from house paint and children’s toys, too. And that fire on June 22, 1969, was the last time an American river burned.
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Steven Conn is the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University and is one of our regular community contributors.