EPA, Cleveland to Set Cuyahoga River on Fire to Celebrate Clean Water Act

, former deputy director, Center for Science & Democracy | April 1, 2012, 6:35 am EDT
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In a misguided attempt to raise awareness about the importance of the Clean Water Act, the EPA and the city of Cleveland plan to set the river on fire—again—this coming Tuesday. 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of the law, which was largely inspired by the famous June 22, 1969 fire on Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River.

UCS Senior Hydrologist Catherine O’Leary slammed the plan. “Numerous studies show that the highest concentration of organisms in a river system is at or near the surface,” she said. “The damage to the aquatic ecosystem would take several years to repair.”

Photo of Cuyahoga River burning

The Cuyahoga River burns in 1969, leading to the passage of the Clean Water Act. Photo: EPA

When the publicity stunt was made public early Friday afternoon, activists lit up the switchboard at EPA headquarters with phone calls. By 4:00 p.m. EST, callers received an automated message that directed them to a website containing an explanation of the EPA’s decision.

Several EPA scientists, speaking to me anonymously because they still lack basic whistleblower protections, indicated that they may file complaints about the way the fire was approved under the agency’s new scientific integrity policy.

“This decision was made by some PR hacks brought in by EPA to get attention to the Clean Water Act anniversary,” said one agency veteran close to the issue. “No EPA scientist was consulted, no environmental impact statement was done. Certainly we would have raised objections.”

EPA spokesperson Lita Match defended the agency’s actions. “We want to remind the American public about the historic era of cooperation that led to such landmark public health laws as the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act,” she told the Associated Press. “As you can see already, we’ve generated a lot of buzz even before the contaminants have hit the water. What better way than raise awareness than to pay homage to a tragic event that motivated a generation of Americans to fight for clean water protection?”

Reportedly, the EPA and the town will use a combination of wood, chemicals, and recycled office paper to create the blaze.  A local environmental group plans to protest at the river on Tuesday, carrying signs that say “This Fire’s a Quagmire!” and chanting slogans like “Chicago turns its river green, burning ours is just obscene!”

Last April 1, UCS announced that based on our analysis, Groundhog’s Day was moving to January 25. We also said that Jersey Shore star Snooki was working with UCS to raise awareness about sea level rise in New Jersey, and that UCS was giving away Snuggies to help Americans reduce their carbon footprints.

Now that you have read this far, please share this story so that others may fall for our little April Fool’s Day joke. To help out, you can post this to your own Facebook page or Twitter. You can also leave a comment on the UCS Facebook page that gets people interested but doesn’t give the joke away. I suggest using words like “outrageous” and “unbelievable.”

And while you’re here, check out our posts about a real problem: legislation moving its way through Congress that would increase the control of pharmaceutical companies over how the FDA evaluates prescription drugs for safety and efficacy. $700 million in lobbying is bearing a lot of fruit.

Oh, and please, do not flame this blog post.

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  • Excellent!

  • Mike B

    Nice April Fools! Actually the Cuyahoga and associated watershed is getting healthier every year thanks to many efforts.. http://www.cuyahogariverrap.org/LINKS.html

    • Michael Halpern

      Thanks, Mike! Yes, that is an excellent point–we are where we are today (with a Cuyahoga that does not burn, and a much healthier river system) because of the hard work of many at all levels, from federal to the very local, both public and private.

      I didn’t knew that the river had burned several times before 1969…we’ve come a long way, and need our flexible, science-based environmental stewardship laws to give us the framework to keep it up.

      Some day, I’d like to paddle that river, as I’ve heard there are great stretches to kayak or canoe.

  • Michael Halpern

    April Fool indeed! No rivers were harmed in the writing of this blog post.


  • Bob

    I get it. April Fool, right?

  • Pat B

    Nice one. How many of these am I going to fall for today? Seriously, I just need to stop reading the news until April 2.

  • Margaret Wacker

    I would suggest that there be a remembrance but, I agree, setting the river on fire again is not appropriate. Perhaps, something more along the lines of releasing flowers in the river or perhaps even small candles on floats.