The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
On May 9, former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William K. Reilly was an American University School of Public Affairs commencement speaker. (Video here.) Over the course of his remarks he reminisced about some of his career experiences, including his early work helping implement the first federal environmental statutes in the Nixon Administration. In the course of these remarks, Reilly also repeated and perpetuated one of the most prevalent fables about America's environmental history.
Discussing the "abysmal" condition of the environment that helped spur the first Earth Day in 1970, Reilly referenced the infamous Cuyahoga River fire of June 22, 1969: "A river caught fire in Cleveland and burned for days." This is a common account. Yet as I've documented at length, it's an account that isn't true.
The 1969 fire did not burn for days. It did not even burn for hours. It was a rather minor fire and was out within 30 minutes. Nonetheless the tale of a river so-dirty-it-burns helped fuel the nation's nascent environmental consciousness.
What the conventional account overlooks is that fires on industrial rivers were once rather common. There were documented fires on the Cuyahoga throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as on industrialized rivers in cities throughout the nation, including Philadelphia, New York, Detroit, and others.
The fable of a river engulfed in flames comes, in large part, from Time magazine's decision to publish a picture of a river fire from 1952 in its 1969 story on environmental decline. The image was powerful, but it did not represent the state of the environment in 1969.
By the time of Time's story, water quality had not become so bad that rivers could catch on fire. To the contrary, water quality (at least as measured by the presence of flammable chemicals and debris on a river's surface) had improved so much that river fires were no longer a prevalent environmental concern. By 1969, the nation had largely forgotten that rivers had once caught fire. In this regard, the 1969 fire was more an aftershock than an sign of things to come. It was reminder of how bad things were, not a warning of how bad things could become.
Environmental problems were real in 1970—and many environmental problems remain real today. As some measures of environmental quality improve, it's almost inevitable that others will decline or new environmental concerns will emerge. But the threat of fires was not emerging as the federal government awakened to environmental concerns, it was disappearing, if it had not already disappeared.