Cuyahoga River Case Study Outline
I. The Causes and Context of the River Fires
A. Cuyahoga River runs through Cleveland, OH, feeding into Lake Erie, 85 miles long. It caught on fire 13 times between mid-1800s and 1969. 13th fire was on June 22, 1969. It was not the most serious fire, but it generated the most public attention. The fires were caused by oil and chemicals in the water.
B. Since the mid-1800s, factories had been dumping waste into the river. The industrialization of the region began in 1807. The Cuyahoga’s basin was widened to accommodate more shipping traffic. The U.S. was shifting away from building expensive railroads and using steamboats to ship goods. Factories along the river: Sherwin Williams (dumped expired paint), slaughterhouse (animal waste), steel mills (ferrous sulfate), Standard Oil Refinery (oil slicks floating on the water) (Hogue, 2019).
C. Immigrant’s description of the river in late 1800s: “‘The water was yellowish, thick, full of clay, stinking of oil and sewage. Piles of rotting wood were heaped on either bank of the river, and it was all dirty and neglected….I was disappointed by this view of an American river” (qtd. in Blakemore, 2019).
D. Fire Details: Worst fires were in 1912 and 1952. In 1912, five people died, and in 1952, over one million dollars in damage resulted because the flames engulfed an entire tugboat (Ohio History Central, n.d.). The fire of 1969 was caused by a spark from a train track above falling into the water and igniting a pile of industrial debris. The oil slick caused the fire to spread rapidly, with flames reaching 50-feet high. Lasted 20 to 30 minutes. No deaths or significant property damage resulted.
II. Ethical Analysis and Lessons Learned
A. Ethical Canon: American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Code of Ethics, Canon 2 b: “consider and balance societal, environmental, and economic impacts” (ASCE, 2020). This idea of balance is the basis for our current concept of progress. In contrast, in the 1800s-early 1900s, U.S society accepted pollution as a necessary and inevitable consequence of industrialism (Boissoneault, 2019).
B. In 1969, the American public was just beginning to recognize the need to balance innovation and environmental protection. Cleveland mayor Carl Stokes helped publicize the fire, giving interviews and leading tours of the area. He asked the state of Ohio for funding but was denied. Then he and his brother, U.S. Congressman Louis Stokes, testified before Congress about the seriousness of the pollution and its impact on the city (Blakemore, 2019).
C. The Stokes’ brothers’ efforts contributed to the creation of the EPA in 1970 and the passing of The Clean Water Act in 1972. The first Earth Day was in 1970. Over a thousand students marched from their schools to the Cuyahoga River (Blakemore, 2019).
D. Significant cleanup efforts on the Cuyahoga continued for the next 50 years. The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District has invested over $3.5 billion into the purification of the Cuyahoga and maintenance of the sewer systems, with a promise from the city to devote another $5 billion in the next 30 years. In 2019, fish from the river were declared safe to eat in moderation (Hogue, 2019).
ASCE. (2020). ASCE code of Ethics. Retrieved October 30, 2020. from http://asce.org
Blakemore, E. (2019, April 22). The Shocking River Fire That Fueled the Creation of the EPA. Retrieved
October 27, 2019, from https://www.history.com/news/epa-earth-day-cleveland-cuyahoga- river-
Boissoneault, L. (2019, June 19). The Cuyahoga River Caught Fire at Least a Dozen Times, but No One
Cared Until 1969. Retrieved October 27, 2019, from
Hogue, C. (2019, June 14). Marking 50 years since the Cuyahoga River fire, which sparked US
environmental action. Retrieved November 4, 2019, from
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