In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire. Industrial waste was regularly dumped into the river and the fire became a literal flashpoint for the country as it became more aware of manufacturing’s environmental impact.
According to Ohio History Central, pieces of oil-slicked debris were floating on the river and ignited by the sparks from a passing train.
On June 22, 2019, it will mark 50 years since the river caught fire and yesterday, for the first time in a half century, it became (maybe) okay to eat fish out of the river.
The Cuyahoga fire actually led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and a regional EPA representative called the announcement a huge step to improve water quality.
According to a report from the AP, Laurie Stevenson, the Ohio EPA Director said, "If you safely can eat the fish, we know that's a great indication that water quality is improving." Wait a second, that seems like a big “if”.
The recommendation came after improvements seen in fish tissue samples.
However, the river remains a problem area and seven other improvements need to be made before it is de-listed. The Ohio governor has proposed a budget with about $1 billion dedicated to water quality projects.
The river blaze in 1969 wasn't the first or the worst for the Cuyahoga, it just happened to be the one when everyone collectively figured enough is enough. The river, which flows into Lake Erie, has caught fire at least 13 times in the past and remains a work in progress.
It took 50 years for it to be okay to eat fish from this toxic dump. We could possibly use it as a reminder to protect such an important natural resource, particularly as new, unknown threats like polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) continue to pop up in public water systems.
PFAs are the toxic industrial compounds used in products like nonstick cookware, carpets and fire-fighting foam.
The chemical has been linked to everything from kidney and testicular cancer to thyroid disease and high cholesterol, and even immune problems in children.