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Editorial: The fire is quenched

Cleveland's flammable river is clean and calm now

Wednesday, June 30, 1999

Thirty years ago last week, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire. Thought to have started when a spark, possibly from a train, ignited oil and debris on the surface, the blaze took 20 minutes to be controlled. But the aftermath lasted for decades.

The burning river became a symbol of industrial pollution and of the decay of Rust Belt cities. It was an embarrassment for Cleveland and Ohio. The river today is very different. Thanks in part to the federal Clean Water Act, waste water treatment and industrial decline that has seen a reduction in discharges, the Cuyahoga is cleaner. And not likely to burn any time soon.

The clean-up of the Cuyahoga reflects a growing recognition by Americans cities that industrial expansion cannot run roughshod over the natural environment and that the quality of our natural surroundings means as much as - and actually can contribute to - robust employment.

Cities try to balance environmental responsibility with economic development as they attempt to meet these dual obligations, but, as Pittsburghers well know, it is often an expensive proposition.

The Cuyahoga, the river that burned, exemplified everything that was wrong 30 years ago, when pollution and environmental degradation were unchecked. Its return to a condition described as clean, but not pristine, is a reflection of progress made - and of progress yet to be made.

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