One of the powerful stories radical environmentalists — or any environmentalists for that matter — tell is how the river in Cleveland caught on fire. Water burning: that’s a real environmental disaster. Government must step in and do something!
Today the Competitive Enterprise Institute tells the true story. It turns out that it was not capitalism gone wild that caused the fire, but too much government and lack of property rights.
Progressivism, Not Capitalism, to Blame for Cleveland River Fire
Washington, D.C., June 22, 2009 — Today is the 40th Anniversary of the famous Cuyahoga river fire in Cleveland, Ohio. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is celebrating the anniversary, because it “led to positive results, including creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and passage of major environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act in 1972 [which meant] we paid attention to how much pollution manufacturers were putting into waterways like the Cuyahoga. The legislation set limits on pollution, and gave EPA the power to fine industry for violating those limits.”
Yet this received wisdom mischaracterizes what happened in 1969 and the reaction to it. Thanks to the work of free-market environmental scholars like Prof. Jonathan Adler of Case Western University (a former CEI scholar), we know the truth about the Cuyahoga River, which includes facts like:
- The fire of 1969 was not regarded as a big deal in Cleveland. The Cleveland Plain-Dealer covered it in 5 paragraphs on page 11 and firefighters were quoted as calling the blaze “unremarkable.”
- The fire was under control within 30 minutes and no TV crews made it there on time. The images most people remember were stock images of an earlier fire in 1952.
- Local industry had in fact been trying to get the river cleaned up for decades. A paper company had sued to prevent the city dumping sewage into the river as early as 1936. A real estate company actually won a victory in such an attempt in 1965, but this was overturned by the courts.
- What prevented clean-up was government control. The City of Cleveland claimed a “prescriptive right” to use the river as a communal dumping ground. The State of Ohio operated a permit system that encouraged using the river that way.
- Cleanup actually started after the 1952 fire, with fish reappearing in 1959, although this was delayed because of state and local government control over the river.
Competitive Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Iain Murray wrote about the Cuyahoga River Fire in his 2008 book, The Really Inconvenient Truths: Seven Environmental Catastrophes Liberals Don’t Want You to Know About-Because They Helped Cause Them. Murray said “the Cuyahoga River Fire of 1969 is an environmentalist myth. It is a myth because it was a minor incident, and it is a myth because it actually demonstrated government’s role in environmental degradation.”
Murray added that “real riparian property rights would have stopped the fires from ever happening. You don’t spit on your own doorstep. Instead, Cleveland declared common ownership and invited spitting.”