The Cuyahoga River

A translation by Judith Turcotte

The St. Lawrence River connects the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. It is 1197 km in length and its estuary is the earth’s largest with a width of 48 km and a length of 370 km. This great river belongs to us, but its well-being depends, to a great extent, on our American neighbours who are responsible for the quality of the water of the Great Lakes which spills into our St. Lawrence.

In the sixties, I still remember the American television reports on the subject of the pollution of the rivers that spilled into the Great Lakes; industrial chemical products and oils had literally killed these rivers. At the time, the population accepted this situation as a normal consequence of industrial and demographic development. It is only when the Cuyahoga River exploded in flames on June 22, 1969, that the situation made the headlines and that the politicians understood they had to do something.

The Cuyahoga River is situated in Ohio; it crosses the city of Cleveland and flows into Lake Erie. At the end of the sixties, everyone knew that the river was extremely polluted; oil stains floated on the surface and it was easy to notice, at certain times, strange bubbling breaking the surface. The popular rumour was that if someone fell in this water, it was preferable that they go to the hospital immediately. For the citizens, this situation was normal and part of the reality of the city whose prosperity depended on industry.

In 1969, a fire broke out in an oil slick and was controlled in less than 30 minutes. The fire created only a little damage to two wooden railway bridges. The incident was minor; however, it struck the people’s imagination and became a symbol for the environmental movement which was then in its early stages. Following this event, the Clean Water Act was voted in 1972 and thanks to the efforts of the city of Cleveland and the Environmental Protection Agency of Ohio, the Cuyahoga was cleaned. In 2019, it won the title of River of the Year for its environmental progress. Today, it is possible to find dozens of fishermen along the shores of the Cuyahoga and the beaches of Chicago are busy again.

This return is good news but the job is not finished; the Cuyahoga River is still polluted by sewage spills and other sources of pollution. The reduction of pollution has allowed the return of 44 fish species to this river that was considered dead. However, one must be careful faced with perceptions and conclusions arrived at too quickly; just as for the St. Lawrence, it is not because there are fishermen and beaches that the water is not polluted.

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