June 24, 2004

Just Another Cleveland Joke

For years one familiar rap on Cleveland was that our river was so polluted that it once caught on fire. While ranking somewhat below Dennis Kucinich, the 1969 river incident is still one of Cleveland's all-time embarrassments. But Case Western Reserve professor and NRO contributor Jonathan Adler does us a service by separating fact from myth:

The Cuyahoga fire was a powerful symbol of a planet in disrepair and an ever-deepening environmental crisis, and it remains so to this day. That a river could become so polluted to ignite proved the need for federal environmental regulation. Following on the heels of several best-selling books warning of ecological apocalypse and other high-profile events such as the Santa Barbara oil spill, the 1969 Cuyahoga fire spurred efforts to enact sweeping federal environmental legislation. "The burning river mobilized the nation and became a rallying point for passage of the Clean Water Act," noted one environmental group on the fire's 30th anniversary. The fire even inspired a song by Randy Newman, "Burn On."

There's a problem with this story. Much of it is myth. Oil and debris on the river's surface did burn in 1969, and federal environmental statutes were the result, but so much else of what we "know" about the 1969 fire simply is not so. It was not evidence of rapidly declining environmental quality, nor was it clear evidence of the need for federal action.

There's also a much longer version of Adler's work on this topic (in PDF format) for anyone so inclined.

Posted by dan at June 24, 2004 3:09 PM