June 21, 2019

Time To Wake Up: Never Again: Remembering the Cuyahoga River Fire

Let's ensure that the Cuyahoga did not burn in vain and that the lessons of the Cuyahoga River, Love Canal, Deepwater Horizon, and other preventable disasters are not repeated by us, now on a global scale.

Mr. President, it is my great honor to join Senator Brown of Ohio here on this 50th anniversary.

The image of a river aflame is engraved in our collective memory. For Ohioans, for Senator Brown, and for all others who care about our water and environment, the Cuyahoga River remains a rallying cry.

Time magazine ran a piece in 1969 calling it this: “Chocolate brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gasses, it oozes rather than flows.” No fish lived in it. It was too dangerous for drinking or swimming. “The lower Cuyahoga has no visual signs of life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes,” a Federal report said.

Virginia Aveni, captain of a vessel charged with cleaning up, told the Plain Dealer that the river “was a complete gel almost of petrochemicals.” There was a “sheen and thickness of the river… it was totally jammed with downfall from upstream” and had “every kind of litter you can imagine.”

Today, waterfowl are back, and paddlers enjoy themselves. It has been named River of the Year for 2019. Fish from the river are now safe to eat. A river that inspired a generation to act in the name of our environment has rewarded that effort.

By the time a spark jumped off a nearby passing train and lit the river on fire in 1969, it was no surprise. The river had burst into flames 13 times before between 1868 and 1969. This is the most economically damaging fire, in 1952, which cost over $1.3 million–$12 million in today’s dollars.

An earlier fire in 1912 was the deadliest, killing 5 people. 

What was different this time? America paid attention.

Of course the Cuyahoga was not our only polluted waterway. The Potomac River in Washington, DC, was, to describe it in Time’s words “stinking from the 240 million gallons of waste [that] were flushed into it daily,” and “Omaha’s meatpackers [filled] the Missouri River with animal grease balls as big as oranges.”

Americans wised up to what we were doing to our planet. We grew tired of unchecked industries using our common assets as their dumps, and things changed. It produced some of the most significant environmental and public health protections in history: the December 1970 establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, the 1972 amendments to the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act, the Ocean Dumping Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Resources Conservation and Recovery Act, and the Toxic Substances Control Act. And, of course, there was the big one–the National Environmental Policy Act.

Each one had broad popular support. Each garnered bipartisan support. It is hard to imagine that today, but it happened.

The American people have made hard-earned progress protecting our waters in the last 50 years. We want to swim in our lakes. We want to fish in our rivers. We want to drink from our streams.

We do not want to go back to the days when rivers oozed, but the Trump administration has the clear aim of allowing industry donors to pollute more and faster.

The price for this is paid in our rivers, on our lands, in our oceans, and in our climate. Right now, in our atmosphere and oceans, we are approaching the kind of environmental catastrophe that befell the Cuyahoga, only magnified many times over.

Let’s ensure that the Cuyahoga did not burn in vain and that the lessons of the Cuyahoga River, Love Canal, Deepwater Horizon, and other preventable disasters are not repeated by us, now on a global scale. We took bipartisan action to protect our environment before. If we can break the devil’s grip on the fossil fuel industry here, we can do it again.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.