Neocons, the Cuyahoga and the EPA


It’s obvious to WC that a primary goal of the current crop of Republican presidential wannabes, at least based upon their speeches in the primaries, is to abolish the EPA.

It might serve a purpose to recall the state of the environment when that radical liberal, Republican President Richad Nixon, signed the National Environmental Policy Act into law. Let’s choose just one example: the Cuyahoga River, which ones through Cleveland, Ohio into Lake Erie.

From 1,000 feet below Lower Harvard Bridge to Newburgh and South Shore Railroad Bridge, the channel becomes wider and deeper and the level is controlled by Lake Erie. Downstream of the railroad bridge to the harbor, the depth is held constant by dredging, and the width is maintained by piling along both banks. The surface is covered with the brown oily film observed upstream as far as the Southerly Plant effluent. In addition, large quantities of black heavy oil floating in slicks, sometimes several inches thick, are observed frequently. Debris and trash are commonly caught up in these slicks forming an unsightly floating mess. Anaerobic action is common as the dissolved oxygen is seldom above a fraction of a part per million. The discharge of cooling water increases the temperature by 10 to 15°F. The velocity is negligible, and sludge accumulates on the bottom. Animal life does not exist. Only the algae Oscillatoria grows along the piers above the water line.The color changes from gray-brown to rusty brown as the river proceeds downstream. Transparency is less than 0.5 feet in this reach. This entire reach is grossly polluted.

“The Cuyahoga River Watershed: Proceedings of a symposium commemorating the dedication of Cunningham Hall.” Kent State University, 1 November 1968.

Cuyahoga River on Fire, 1952

Cuyahoga River on Fire, 1952

According to the revisionist history in the Fordham University Law Review, there have reportedly been at least thirteen fires on the Cuyahoga River, the first occurring in 1868. The largest river fire in 1952 caused over $1 million in damage to boats and a riverfront office building. Fires erupted on the river several more times before June 22, 1969, when a river fire captured the attention of Time magazine, which described the Cuyahoga as the river that “oozes rather than flows” and in which a person “does not drown but decays.” 

The 1969 fire was one of the primary incidents driving enactment of the Clean Water Act and creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. In a lot of ways, the Cuyahoga was the poster child for environmentalism, but that doesn’t mean the problems weren’t real, or that the health and safety of the nation were not in jeopardy. Ironically, the State of Ohio has made some progress in cleaning up the Cuyahoga since the inferno of 1952, but it was and remained an almost unbelievably polluted river.

Would everyone in the room who wants to return to those days please raise their hands? Anybody? No one?

Today the Cuyahoga River supports fish; in 1969 it barely supported anaerobic bacteria. The Neocons claim that the river would have been cleaned up without the federal intervention, but not on the available evidence. The Cuyahoga was in decline continuously from the middle 1860’s – when it first caught on fire – until the EPA stepped in in 1970. Post hoc ergo propter hoc and all that, but the cleanup occurred under the direction of the EPA, not in the 100 plus years of pollution that preceded creation of the EPA.

Laissez faire nearly destroyed America. Environmental protection, as deficient and limited as it may be, is a lower price than the alternative. Randy Newman sang,

There’s a red moon rising
On the Cuyahoga River
Rolling into Cleveland to the lake

There’s a red moon rising
On the Cuyahoga River
Rolling into Cleveland to the lake

There’s an oil barge winding
Down the Cuyahoga River
Rolling into Cleveland to the lake

There’s an oil barge winding
Down the Cuyahoga River
Rolling into Cleveland to the lake

Cleveland city of light city of magic
Cleveland city of light you’re calling me
Cleveland, even now I can remember
‘Cause the Cuyahoga River
Goes smokin’ through my dreams

Burn on, big river, burn on
Burn on, big river, burn on

Now the Lord can make you tumble
And the Lord can make you turn
And the Lord can make you overflow
But the Lord can’t make you burn

Burn on, big river, burn on
Burn on, big river, burn on

Randy Newman, “Burn On,” Sail Away (1972)

Can we not go back there, please? To paraphrase Dylan, “What do I have to pay to avoid going through all these things twice?”

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3 thoughts on “Neocons, the Cuyahoga and the EPA

  1. Well, it’s too bad you’re just a darned blogger instead of an idiot talking head.
    We could sure use the change in conversation this post provides.

    The idiot talking heads get all kinds of exposure in print and on air with their gobbeldygook “corrections” that the river itself wasn’t on fire, merely all the crap contained in it was, and therefore any argument pointing to the history of fires as reason to clean it up is lost in lies.

  2. Thanks again WC. The argument is always presented in the same way: Other less environmentally responsible countries have fewer regulations when developing their natural resources and the US has a regulatory system that “strangles” development. The anger toward the EPA is absolutely absurd. It essentially suggests developed countries ignore the gains made since the 1970s and repeat the horrible environmental mistakes of the past. We squandered a moment during the Olympics in China by not being even more vocal and advocating better air quality for the Chinese people. But, it all comes down to money. Consider the coal industry in Alaska. We are part of the problem.

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