45 years later: Cuyahoga River pollution much lower than ‘the day the river burned’

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CLEVELAND, Ohio — Gaze down the Cuyahoga River near where its mouth opens into Lake Erie, and you will see rowers and boaters, people on jet skis and others just fishing.

In other words, you will see a lot of people enjoying the river.

Forty-five years ago, that wasn’t the case.

On that date, June 22, 1969, the river caught fire, sparking a national debate about environmental standards and making Cleveland the butt of national jokes.

“We came down, and we saw it burning,” said Angelo Cammarato, who was a teenager at the time. “And we thought it was very unusual for the river to be burning.”

Unfortunately, it wasn’t that unusual.

Thanks to decades of unregulated dumping, the river had a high concentration of industrial waste and raw sewage in it. Between 1949 and 1961, the river had caught fire at least four times.

But it was the 1969 fire on the river that helped spark the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, passage of the Clean Air Act, and in Cleveland, the formation of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District.

“Since then, we’ve done a lot to significantly reduce pollution in the Cuyahoga River and on Lake Erie,” said Jeannie Chapman, manager of Community and Media Relations for the district.

Chapman said the proof is in the number and types of fish that are now in the river.

“We have seen fish species we haven’t seen in decades,” she said.

Chapman said the region now dumps only about half the pollution into Lake Erie and its waterways that it did on the day the river burned.

In 20 years, she said that number will be under ten percent.

Meantime, people are once again enjoying the river that runs through the heart of the city.

“It’s hard for me to grasp (that the river burned),” said Ella Thompson, as she fished. “Now, there are so many fish, and it is so calm.”

And it should only get better in the years to come.

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