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River on fire: Legacy of the Cuyahoga and the future of the EPA

A crew rows along the Cuyahoga river at sunset in the Flats section of Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., October 23, 2020.

A crew rows along the Cuyahoga river at sunset in the Flats section of Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., October 23, 2020.

REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

It was the summer of ’69: Man landed on the moon, the Stonewall riots broke out, and Ohio’s Cuyahoga River burst into flames — igniting the modern environmental movement.

Fifty-five years later, the health of rivers is more topical than ever — from states in the Western US negotiating how to share dwindling water from the Colorado River to the 2024 Paris Olympics. In the French capital, the fate of the triathlon hangs in the balance due to dangerous levels of bacteria present in the Seine despite the government’s $1.55 billion clean-up effort.

Back in 1969, the 100-mile-long Cuyahoga River was a dumping ground for industrial waste in Cleveland, hurting the river and the connecting Lake Erie. The Cuyahoga had caught fire several times before without causing alarm — a polluted river, after all, meant that industry was thriving, the economy was booming, and people had jobs.

But that all changed when Time magazine published an article about the fires. The ensuing public outcry led President Richard Nixon to establish the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, creating a federal bureau to regulate pollution for the first time. That same year, 1,000 students marched to the river for the country’s first Earth Day. Then in 1972, Congress passed the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, which are still the bedrock for pollution control in the US.

Thanks to the Cuyahoga River, the nation seems to have awakened to the dangers of industrial pollution.

In 2019, after a half-century of cleanup efforts and pollution limits, the Cuyahoga River was the poster child for the effectiveness of environmental regulations: Fish caught in the river were declared safe to eat, and hiking trails, nature preserves, and the occasional craft brewery sprouted along its banks. But the following year, the river caught fire again due to a fuel tanker crash. It was an accident, but it also served as a reminder that the progress made on water pollution can be rapidly undone.

When Donald Trump campaigned in 2016, he insisted jobs were under attack and the EPA was to blame. Once in office, he rolled back environmental protections, restricted the ability of states to regulate their waters, and eliminated rules preventing coal companies from dumping waste into water sources.

While Joe Biden reversed many of those policies, the about-face between administrations reveals that EPA and environmental policy, pioneered by a Republican president and once dependably bipartisan, have succumbed to America’s polarization plague. Even the EPA is choosing sides. On Tuesday, the union representing EPA employees endorsed Biden’s reelection — its first-ever political endorsement.

As for the agency’s future, that could be decided this month by the Supreme Court. Before they break at the beginning of July, the justices will determine whether to overrule the 1984 Chevron decision giving government agencies, like the EPA, the power to use their expertise to interpret and implement laws. The Supreme Court is expected to at least significantly weaken the doctrine, which would make it far more difficult for the EPA to regulate industries or win when those regulations are challenged in court.


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