Ohio's Burning River In Better Health 40 Years Later Forty years ago, Ohio's Cuyahoga River, which had been compared to "an open septic tank," caught fire. Cuyahoga became a rallying cry for environmentalists and sparked the creation of the EPA and the Clean Water Act. Now the river teems with fish and wildlife.
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Ohio's Burning River In Better Health 40 Years Later

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Ohio's Burning River In Better Health 40 Years Later

Ohio's Burning River In Better Health 40 Years Later

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Forty years ago today, a spark flew from a train crossing a low bridge over the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. That spark ignited oil-soaked debris in the water. The river burned, and that fire helped to ignite the environmental movement.

(Soundbite of song, "Burn On")

Mr. RANDY NEWMAN (Musician): (Singing) Burn on, big river, burn on.

BLOCK: Randy Newman wrote the song, "Burn On," and the environmental movement found a new symbol. Forty years later, the Cuyahoga is a very different river. It teams with fish and wildlife. Dan Bobkoff of member station WCPN in Cleveland explains what happened.

DAN BOBKOFF: Even today, tell someone you live in Cleveland, and invariably you'll hear: Doesn't your river catch on fire? Nevermind that in the middle of the 20th century, rivers in industrial cities across the country caught on fire all the time. Nevermind it's been four decades since the Cuyahoga's infamous blaze that only lasted about a half hour. That image of a sludge and oil-filled river on fire persists. But today's river could not be more different.

Unidentified Man #1: You guy's ready?

(Soundbite of machinery revving)

BOBKOFF: To see how different, some workers with the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District are shocking fish today. From July to October, John Rhoades and his crew take this boat out and lower electrical poles into the water to briefly stun, net and then release the fish.

We can sort of see the fish bubbling up to the top, there.

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah, that was the fish that was in the field, so the (unintelligible) was coming up. And you'll see - I didn't see any small-mouth bass in there. Mostly, our bass species that was…

BOBKOFF: What they're finding today are dozens of kinds of fish, from red horses to steelhead. And another good sign: Many of the fish they find hate pollution. In the early 1980s, when they started keeping track, parts of this river were so polluted that virtually nothing could survive. Many of these same sections are now rated as exceptional for fish habitat. Some parts of the river near Akron still have problems with sewage and runoff, but in much of the Cuyahoga, beavers, herons and even bald eagles thrive. It's a remarkable transformation.

Mr. FRANK SAMSEL (Former Boat Captain): It was sort of an open septic tank with junk floating on top.

BOBKOFF: Frank Samsel spent years cleaning up the river on his boat he called the Putzfrau, which is German for cleaning lady.

Mr. SAMSEL: Anything you can imagine that can float or could - is soluble was in the river.

BOBKOFF: So how did the Cuyahoga go from a lifeless, opaque river of sludge to water that, while far from pristine, is the cleanest it's been since the Industrial Revolution?

Mr. SAMSEL: I think it was 90-something percent news media that did it.

BOBKOFF: Specifically, Time Magazine. The fire initially generated barely a mention in the news. But a few weeks later, Time was getting on the burgeoning environmental bandwagon and published an article that mentioned the fire. Some river, the magazine mockingly wrote. Oh, and a lot of people read that issue. It was the same one with news of Ted Kennedy's Chappaquiddick incident and the first moon landing.

So, while that may have been unfair to Cleveland, the story about the burning Cuyahoga became an environmental rallying cry, one that led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and, eventually, the Clean Water Act.

(Soundbite of bell)

BOBKOFF: Trains still cross the Cuyahoga at the site of the fire. The debris under the bridge is now natural - logs and such. My guide is Keith Linn, who studies water quality at the Sewer District.

There's so much history, here. I mean, this spot was the impetus for so much change in this country, and yet there's no plaque, there's no anything that would tell you that.

Mr. KEITH LINN (Water Quality Researcher): You're right. This is a rather historic location.

BOBKOFF: But further up the river in Akron, there's another big change: The public is beginning to see this river as a destination.

Mr. MIKE LARKIN(ph): When we get about halfway there, we'll start working over to the right.

BOBKOFF: Mike Larkin and some kayaking buddies are about to take their boats on some of the river's rapids. He says the reputation hasn't quite caught up with the reality.

Mr. LARKIN: We get a funny look when they say - we say we actually get in the river and kayak in it.

BOBKOFF: But today, on this 40th anniversary of the fire that led to this dramatic clean-up, the city held a concert on its banks, declaring the river reborn. The EPA that was in large part formed out of the fire now declares parts of the river fully restored. River advocates say instead of reaching for an easy joke about the Cuyahoga, it might be a better idea to grab a paddle or a fishing rod.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Bobkoff in Cleveland.

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