Clean rivers: A 20th/21st century miracle

I was born in 1981 and, because of that, I largely missed the part of American history where our rivers were so polluted that they did things like, you know, catch fire. But it happened. And, all things considered, it didn't happen that long ago. The newspaper clippings above are from a 1952 fire on Ohio's Cuyahoga river. Between 1868 and 1969 that river burned at least 13 times.

That's something worth remembering — not just that we once let our waterways get that trashed, but also the fact that we've gone a long way towards fixing it. We took 200 years of accumulating sewage and industrial degradation and cleaned it up in the span of a single generation. At Slate, James Salzman writes about that reversal of environmental fortune, a shift so pronounced — and so dependent upon a functioning government in which a diverse spectrum of politicians recognize the importance of investing in our country's future — that it seems damned-near impossible today.

... discharging raw sewage and pollution into our harbors and rivers has been common practice for most of the nation’s history, with devastating results. By the late 1960s, Lake Erie had become so polluted that Time magazine described it as dead. Bacteria levels in the Hudson River were 170 times above the safe limit. I can attest to the state of the Charles River in Boston. While sailing in the 1970s, I capsized and had to be treated by a dermatologist for rashes caused by contact with the germ-laden waters.

In 1972, a landmark law reversed the course of this filthy tide. Today, four decades later, the Clean Water Act stands as one of the great success stories of environmental law. Supported by Republicans and Democrats alike, the act took a completely new approach to environmental protection. The law flatly stated there would be no discharge of pollutants from a point source (a pipe or ditch) into navigable waters without a permit. No more open sewers dumping crud into the local stream or bay. Permits would be issued by environmental officials and require the installation of the best available pollution-control technologies.

The waste flushed down drains and toilets needed a different approach, so the Clean Water Act provided for billions of dollars in grants to construct and upgrade publicly owned sewage-treatment works around the nation. To protect the lands that filter and purify water as it flows by, permits were also required for draining and filling wetlands.

Read the rest of the story

Image from the Blog on Smog, which also has a really nice timeline of cleanup on the Cuyahoga.

Via Laura Helmuth


  1. I recently read Brunner’s “The Sheep Look Up”, a fictional future had the environmental movement never happened or lost completely.

    Highly recommend it.

    Probably a bit less frightening for an American reader now than it would have been then… unless you start to think about some of the related news coming out of China and other developing nations.

  2. I’m reminded very powerfully of the opening scene of Major League, with Randy Newman’s 1972 song, “Burn On”. It’s kind of interesting to think that something normally thought of as ugly and negative could inspire such a celebratory song.

  3. I was thinking recently about the successes Sydney, Australia has had with cleaning up some of the rivers and coastlines, to the point where shark and other sea-life populations are noticeably increasing. Then I thought about how nobody’s seen a Yangtze River Dolphin in a really long time, and I wondered, does Australia have sharks in clear, clean waters now because we’ve shipped all our more objectionable manufacturing off to China? Did the Yangtze River Dolphin die so that the Grey Nurse Shark could cruise the NSW coast? 

    Is swimmable, uncontaminated water an accumulating benefit of relative prosperity, available only so long as there is a poorer, less-regulated ecosystem to relocate your manufacturing and attendent waste to?Did the pollution actually decrease in the face of all this regulation, or did it just go somewhere else?

    1.  Pollution control is just a matter of investment, as it gets implemented in the manufacturing process it gets cheaper and cheaper. Pollution is not a extra premium benefit to industries, just costs dodged.
      Manufacturing companies will always argue that they outsource their production to some third world country because worker wages, not because of a mandatory water treatment plant.
      Anyway, the problem is capitalism.
      Maximize benefits, screw everybody if you have to.

      1. Wages are the go-to answer, but it’s really more complicated than that.  Garment workers for instance have poor pay across the world, but in some countries you can’t screw them over nearly as easily because workers know their rights and their government will stand up for them.  Those countries get labeled as hostile to business.  Luckily with globalization, you have countries competing for which one has the most lax worker/environmental/etc… policies. 

        Sure 282 people might burn to death in your factory every now and again, but what do you care, you’re swimming in cash and the place where you’ve set up your factory is so shitty that people will work there even if it means being incinerated every so often. 

  4. Thanks, Maggie!  In all the constant stream of upcoming disaster news , it is good to hear how far we have come on at least one issue!  Cuyahoga, Hudson, Potomac and more…. Far from perfect but  a lot, lot, lot better than it had been

  5. This raises a really good point.  Some of us, myself included, are so concerned about the bad things that are happening to our environment that we tend to forget the progress that we’ve made.  The Clean Air Act had a huge impact, for example.

    Compare 2012 to this:

  6. I remember being about 8 years old and looking down into the Nashua River in Massachusetts.  It was like something from Naushika.  It still makes me nauseated to think about it.

    Of course, in the days before Ladybird Johnson, driving on the highways was like a garbage-themed amusement park ride.  People just normally and routinely threw all their trash out the window.

    1. I just came here to the comments to tell people to give their props to Ladybird Johnson for the effort to clean up our rivers, but someone more awesome than I am did it first.

       And yes, the highways were filthy and I am sure that in the time I am remembering they were actually much cleaner than what Antnous is remembering.

  7. I grew up in the 1950s so I saw what many younger people missed … the Schuylkill River in Reading, Pa., running turquoise in color from upstream mine wastes. The original plan was for sewage treatment to have primary, secondary and tertiary treatment, but the third proved “too expensive.”
    Then there was air pollution that killed people in their sleep in London and outside Pittsburgh.
    And guess who wants to bring it all back?

  8. This is the American way. Instead of stopping the incident from happening, we let private Business Interests drive until their is a need for the public to step in to fix it. Usually there needs to be “an Incident” that is huge and exposed. 

    I think that what is happening with Fraking right now is in this catagory.
    How much polluted Ground water needs to happen until the Government steps in and demand it stop?

    We do not live by the Precautionary principle here in the US. It’s, “Fuck up the environment now, let someone else fix the problem later. 

    And of course China is following out model. 

    I heard a report the other day about the US becoming a net exporter of energy again if you count the natural gas from Fraking, And everyone is very excited. What they aren’t doing is calculating the cost of TRYING to clean up the ground water, or even the cost in cleaning up ground water that didn’t cost anything before. I’m sure that Halliburton will sell ground water purification plants to people..

    1. It is human nature I think.  For instance, people ignore their health until they have a crisis then they freak out demanding someone make everything better or they give up completely.  Planning for the future usually requires some sacrifice and imagination to see the outcomes of their actions (“We need to restrict certain businesses and can’t use cheap sewage systems along this river.”).  Sadly, not everyone has that kind of personality.

  9. In 1981 I was about the age you are now, so I am old enough to remember a time of much more pollution- burning rivers and dead lakes, but also air in LA that was often so thick with choking, foul smelling smog you could only see 100 feet or so.  My wife was using trailer mounted mini computers (early 70’s) to design mobile air monitoring systems for deployment around the country, so she got a front row seat with the data. People forget how bad it was, but the air was extremely unhealthy in many areas. 

    It was bureaucratic, intrusive, imperfect, but also very successful government regulation that forced industries to become cleaner, and mandated lower emissions from cars.  I remember protests from business that pollution controls- on cars particularly- would kill whole industries.  It was instead, on the whole, an economic boon.  Polluting the environment, it turns out, carries a very high price- the only question is who pays, because someone will. Ideally it should be those who benefit from the pollution, to encourage them to find non-polluting ways to accomplish their tasks.  
    We humans are inclined to take a short term view- government is one means we have to collectively force ourselves to to exercise long term responsibility.  We are much better off for the environmental movement and regulations of the 60’s and 70’s- but that history seems lost on the current crop of anti-regulation true believers.  Back then, environmental protections were not such a partisan issue, and at least a few politicians cared more about the next generation than the next news cycle.  
    We only export the problem if we refuse to apply the same standards elsewhere. That will also take governmental, and international, action.  We need to be willing to pay a little more in the short run to avoid paying a lot more in the long term.

  10. As others have said, this is the type of thing that really gets overlooked, progress CAN be made on environmental problems… usually without the dire repercussions predicted by those who oppose environmental regulation. 

    This “progress blindness” actually is such a problem that opponents use these very same issues to suggest that the environmental problems weren’t as serious as stated. 

    “What ever happened to Acid Rain, hunh?” 
    “Where’s the Ozone hole panic today?” 
    “Tree-huggers are always saying the sky is falling….”

    These problems didn’t just go away on their own, they got better because a lot of hard work goes into creating workable solutions. These stories need more prominence to debunk the idea that environmentalism is ineffectual or disconnected from real results. Good work.

  11. granted it’s an improvement that the rivers don’t burn today, and that many higher forms of life have returned to waters where sludge worms were the pinnacle of evolution in the 1970s (the abundance of benthic macroinvertabrates like caddis fly and mayfly larvae are great water-quality indicators because they require high levels of dissolved oxygen in the water, which in general means it’s relatively cold and clean and fast-moving).

    But I read the whole article looking for references to the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that are still in the mud on the bottom in a lot of places.  Like all the major rivers in the great lakes system, for one example.  Or on the bottom of Lake Michigan itself.  Lots of sediment has been deposited on top of the layers containing the worst contamination in the 40 years since it’s been illegal to produce PCBs in the US, which means the layer of pollution is more or less stable, so long as no more of it is leaching out of the original contamination source- but it’s still there, and it’s still carcinogenic, and it still bio-accumulates in bottom-feeding organisms and the fish that eat them.

    The problem with a lot of highly-manufactured chemical pollution is that once you put it into the environment, it just … stays there.  And what you have now is a lot of conflict about whether it’s better to try to clean all of it up and risk stirring all that goo back into the food chain, or just let that sleeping dog lie and hope that nothing else comes along to stir it up again.

    As others have noted, I can’t help thinking we’re going to be having the same conversation about fracking in another ten or fifteen years.

  12. No you have it backwards – a burning river is a miracle.  Water does not normally burn.

    But thanks again for pointing out the success of government regulation, and putting costs on pollution.  That shit works.

  13. I’m evidently a little older than you. I grew up outside of Chattanooga, a southern industrial town that is basically at the bottom of a bowl surrounded by three mountains. When I was a child, people would have to turn their headlights on during the day sometimes.

    “The Cuyahoga River
    Goes smokin’ through my dreams.
    Burn on, big river, burn on.”

    –Randy Newman

  14. The Flon river, which flows through the centre of Lausanne, became so polluted and nasty that the city decided to bury it towards the end of the 17th century. The river still flows, trapped in a tunnel. There is a tiny window in the central underground car park, about three levels down, through which you can see what remains of it.

    As part of the works, the lower level of the magnificent Grand-Pont was covered over.×401/5/86/38/30/Grand-pont-Pichard.jpg

  15. I’ve been reading about the history of the Thames and how it essentially became a giant cesspool.  It got so bad one summer that the stench almost drove parliament out of London.  It finally forced them to build a centralized sewage system.

    I think our obsession with damming every river every inch of its way has been part of the problem also.  We’ve heavily restricted the natural ability of river to flush themselves.  Tidal rivers are especially hurt by this.

    I had to take river bottom mud samples once for the city of New York along the New Jersey rivers.  In the past one of them had been used as a dump for paint manufacturers and was so heavily contaminated with heavy metals that dredging it was a worse option than not (it would stir up the half buried toxins and create a plume).  I was told by one official to be careful not to get the mud on my skin or I’d get a bad rash.

  16. I worked for a while in the 70s for the US EPA in Cleveland.  It is easy from the outside or in retrospect to imagine:
    1. Regulations passed. 2. Reluctant compliance. 3. Clean waterways. In fact, step 2 was a mess, almost a ground war, with obsolete equipment (and people!) inherited from the FWQA, environmental orgs suing the USEPA on the grounds that they were in the corporate pockets, turf wars  springing from USEPA accusations that OEPA was in the corporate pockets, obviously faked data from corporations (OEPA thought companies should simply monitor themselves), water samples sabotaged in transit to analysis labs, freak factory “accidents” targeting EPA and OSHA inspectors when onsite, and so on. The hard-fought gains were so incremental as to be nearly invisible to people in the field.My personal view is that the cleanup wouldn’t have happened without dedicated people. mainly engineers, working their asses off in hostile and dangerous environments not for their meager government salaries but because they believed so strongly in the rightness of what they were doing, even in the face of what seemed to be a hopeless situation.

  17. Every time I hear about young people voting for politicians who are against such things as the EPA, I get so frustrated. Maybe it’s because they have lived their entire lives benefiting from the results of such programs, and think that “water and air have always been clean and always will” so don’t see a need to vote accordingly.

    1. People have short memories.  Look at all the idiots who are against vaccines for things like measles.  They should all have to visit old cemeteries that are full of graves where all the kids in a family died within a month of each other.

  18. It’s not difficult to mobilize public opinion against the kinds of air and water pollution that were targeted in the USA during the ’60s and ’70s, because the pollution is so easily seen and smelled by Joe or Jane Sixpack, and even more because the ratio of non-polluters to polluters is on the order of 100000:1 or more.  Easy to mobilize the many versus “them”.

    Which is why the climate change movement has generally gotten traction in the underdeveloped world.  It’s easy to identify “us” and “them” and demand action that restricts many of the things that “they” are doing.

    On the other hand, it’s much more difficult to mobilize climate change action in the first world because the restrictions have to be put on……well, us. 

    And running against “us” is rarely a winning platform.  Which is why the Republicans are in denial, and the Democrats spin soothing fantasies about how the new green economy will generate jobs and prosperity like a cornucopia.

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