The Cuyahoga fire at fifty: a false history obscures the real water crisis that never ceased

  • John CroninEmail author
Articles with Attitude


Popular history relates that on June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River burst into flames as it flowed through Cleveland, Ohio, on its way to Lake Erie. The nation responded with such outrage, the story continues, that the environmental movement was founded, the US Environmental Protection Agency was created, the 1972 Federal Clean Water Act written, and the modern era of environmental law launched. None of these assertions are true. As in the children’s game of telephone, a railroad trestle fire became a river conflagration, unfairly stigmatizing the Cuyahoga and the city of Cleveland, and casting in the shadows seminal events that formed the nation’s rich environmental history. Worse, the tale is used today as evidence that the nation’s waters are now well-protected when the condition of most is poor. This article surveys the history that actually paved the way for contemporary environmental policy, and describes how the Cuyahoga story has been used, even if unintentionally, to deflect attention from the failings of that policy. It is time for a new story, not only about the Cuyahoga but also the nation’s water crisis that never ceased. Shortcuts of convenience to environmental history should give way to a serious treatment of a deeply rooted American environmentalism that created bold goals the nation has yet to achieve. Environmental curricula should teach that statutes such as the Clean Water Act must be evaluated based on present performance, more than past accomplishments. In light of the profound threats to national water quality that still persist, environmental study programs should question, rather than accept on faith, the relevance of current law and policy. Perhaps students and a fresh generation of leaders will be inspired to write new laws, reform policies, halt pollution, and set environmental goals worthy of the twenty-first century.


Cuyahoga River Clean Water Act Water crisis Water pollution Water policy Environmental law 



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Copyright information

© AESS 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Dyson College Institute for Sustainability and the EnvironmentPace UniversityPleasantvilleUSA

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