This Day in the Law
June 22

Cuyahoga River Catches Fire, Spurning Environmental Laws (1969)

On June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Northeast Ohio caught fire, causing a spate of new environmental and anti-pollution laws to be passed.

Moses Cleaveland, a surveyor, first arrived at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River in 1796, and subsequently decided to locate a settlement there, which became Cleveland, Ohio. By the mid-1800s, the Cuyahoga River was one of the most polluted rivers in the United States. The reach from Akron to Cleveland was completely devoid of fish due to lack of oxygen in the water, and the river was overrun with oil slicks and garbage. There have reportedly been at least thirteen fires on the Cuyahoga River, the first occurring in 1868, with the largest and most damaging fire occurring in 1952. Fires erupted on the river several more times before June 22, 1969, when the river fire captured the attention of Time magazine and gave the extreme pollution national exposure.

The Cuyahoga River fire helped spur a flood of water pollution control activities, resulting in the Clean Water Act, Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and even the creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. As a result, large point sources of pollution on the Cuyahoga have received significant attention from the OEPA in recent decades.

Today, though water quality has improved, the Environmental Protection Agency classified portions of the Cuyahoga River as one of forty-three Great Lakes Areas of Concern.