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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Living on Earth Almanc

Air Date: Week of

Ohio's Cuyahoga River caught fire thirty years ago this week, changing U.S. environmental history.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood

(Music up and under: "There's a red moon risin' on the Cuyahoga River. Rollin' into Cleveland to the lake...")

CURWOOD: Immortalized in song, the image of flames leaping off Ohio's Cuyahoga River 30 years ago this week stunned the nation. It happened under a wooden railroad bridge not far from the downtown center of Cleveland, where trash and debris choked the river's surface and a slurry of oil, chemicals, and heavy metals created vibrant swirls of color.

(Music up and under: "There's an oil barge winding on the Cuyahoga River, rolling into Cleveland to the lake...")

CURWOOD: In this toxic mix, a spark from a passing train set the debris on fire and ignited the oil floating on the river's surface. Flames shot 50 feet in the air and badly scorched the railroad bridge. The fire was over in half an hour and no one captured it on film, but it changed the course of environmental history.

(Music up and under: "Cleveland, city of light, city of magic...")

CURWOOD: Though it wasn't the first burn on the Cuyahoga or the worst, and it wasn't the only US river to catch fire, this Cuyahoga blaze alerted the public that something was horribly wrong with our waters. A few years later the landmark Clean Water Act was passed. Since then the Cuyahoga has become a cleaner river. A stretch of it, once devoid of a single fish, is now home to more than 50 species. There's a national recreation area along the river's banks. And visitors flock to restaurants along Cleveland's revitalized downtown waterfront. But the Cuyahoga still has a ways to go.

(Music up and under: "Burn on, big river. Burn on...")

CURWOOD: Today, heavy rains still flush oils, fertilizers, pesticides, and other contaminants into the river. And the numbers and diversity of the fish aren't high enough yet to pronounce the river fully healthy. But local governmental agencies, citizen's groups, and industry are working together to educate the community and create a remedial action plan for the river's continuing clean- up. It's their hope that the lasting impression the Cuyahoga leaves on people's memories today will be more positive than the one that smoked through Randy Newman's mind some 30 years ago.

(Music up and under: "Burn on, big river. Burn on.")

CURWOOD: And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.



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