Two steps up, one step back for Ohio river

Forty years ago, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River became an infamous symbol of industry-related water pollution.

Forty years ago, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River became an infamous symbol of industry-related water pollution. Once called the “heart of the land,” the river literally caught fire on June 22, 1969, when floating oil and debris ignited, possibly from the sparks of a train passing over it. It was the tenth time the river had caught fire, and the incident attracted national attention.

In the decades since, there has been a concerted effort to clean up the river, which the EPA has listed as an impaired waterway. In fact, so much improvement had been made that the Cuyahoga River Community Planning Organization applied for a delisting of a particular segment of the river in April of this year – and fully expected to receive it.

The group designated 2009 as the ‘Year of the River,’ and recently held a series of events celebrating the river’s return to a healthy state and its imminent delisting as a polluted waterway.

Unfortunately, however, EPA denied the application, saying that although parts of the river had indeed been cleaned up, the Cuyahoga as a whole did not meet the criteria for delisting.

John Perrecone, of the EPA’s Great Lakes National Program Office in Chicago, said, “In 40 years, this community has made significant progress in improving the river and in improving parts of the river.” However, despite the overall improvements to the health of the river, Perrecone said the agency could not remove just a segment of the river from the list of “areas of concern.”

Jim White, head of the Cuyahoga River Community Planning Organization, expressed his disappointment about the decision. “We’re not happy and a little mystified, frankly, why the federal bureaucrats won’t accept the fact that parts of Cuyahoga River should be delisted as having impairments to fish and bug health.”

“This is not good news for a river that has come a long, long way over the last few decades,” White said.

It is certainly unfortunate that, despite the strides made by the community in cleaning up the Cuyahoga, the 100-mile-long river will continue to populate the list of impaired waterways.

What do you think? Should restored segments of an impaired waterway be eligible for delisting? Or must the body of water be considered in its entirety? I’d like to hear your thoughts. Send your comments to me at, or post a comment on this article at

Angela Godwin
Editor, Urban Water Management

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