These Pollution Disasters Pushed Environmental Policy Forward

From oil spills to burning rivers, view snapshots of some of the most catastrophic pollution events in U.S. history that inspired environmental protection efforts.

large black clouds of smoke tower above a river on fire. people stand on a bridge with water hoses trying to control the fire
The Cuyahoga River catches fire in 1952, one of many instances where the polluted, oil-filled waterway was set ablaze. Seen from Jefferson St. and W. 3rd. Credit: The Cleveland Press Collection/Cleveland State University/Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections

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For at least a hundred years, people watched the Cuyahoga River burn. The waterway, which curves through Northeast Ohio, was one of the most polluted rivers in the United States—brimming with yellow-black rings of oil, sewage, and debris that had been dumped from the industries in Cleveland. Since the 1860s, the oil-soaked river had caught fire at least a dozen times.

But, “it wasn’t the only river in America that was on fire,” David Uhlmann, director of the University of Michigan Law School’s Environmental Law and Policy Program, tells Science Friday in a recent Degrees of Change interview. Rivers and streams were used as open sewers, beaches were coated in oil from blown out rigs, towns and cities were blanketed in smog from industries and manufacturers. “We had air literally choking people, making it impossible to breathe in large American cities. We had a desperate need to do something about the environment.”

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Then in 1969, a blaze towering over five stories high on the Cuyahoga River was one event that helped ignite legislative action.

“Remarkably, the environment was an issue that brought people together at a time where people were pretty badly divided,” says Uhlmann. “Pretty much everybody was in favor of cleaner air, fresher water, and communities freed of hazardous waste sites.”

These events and disasters motivated pollution regulations and environment protection laws in the 1970s—and helped unite policy makers. Looking back can inform decision-making today, says Uhlmann.

“I look at this decade, at both the challenges we face and the opportunities before us, and I’m reminded of the 1970s,” says Uhlmann. “I think we can, indeed we must, come together again around environmental issues, recognize the fact that there is no planet B. There’s nowhere else for us to go.”

Explore archival images of some of the historical events that led to foundational environmental protection laws in the United States.

two black and white photos side by side. both depict a mighty black smoke on a river. the photos are captured from a bridge

This blaze on the Cuyahoga River in 1952 is reported to have been the most potent, and caused over $1.3 million in damages. Credit: The Cleveland Press Collection/Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections

a black and white photo of dark patches of oil on a river
A number of industries lined the river, including oil refineries, paint factories, steel mills, and shipyards. Credit: The Cleveland Press Collection/Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
a slick of oil on a river
Hundreds of millions of liters of wastewater were released into the river from many of the industries. Credit: The Cleveland Press Collection/Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections

“None of these challenges are republican or democratic issues… It affects all of us.”
— David Uhlmann 

a boat on a river trying to put out a fire on the river. people watch on a bridge overhead
A fire on Cuyahoga River in 1949. Credit: Lou Moore/The Cleveland Press Collection/Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collection
a black and white photo of dead fish
Dead fish from the river. Credit: The Cleveland Press Collection/Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
Brown-oily substance discharged into the water from Cuyahoga River Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp, taken on September 22, 1970. Credit: The Cleveland Press Collection/Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections

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In January 1969, a blow-out on one of the oil rig platforms along the coast of Santa Barbara spilled an estimated 3 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean, according to The Los Angeles Times. Credit: USGS
a group of reporters follow president nixon on a beach as they press their feet into the oil covered sand

President Richard Nixon visits Ledbetter Park in Santa Barbara, California following the oil spill. It created a 35-mile-long oil slick along California’s coast. Credit: National Archives

“In America, we often need a tragedy to motivate us to act.
— David Uhlmann

black oil piled up against a wall by the beach
Oil build up along the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969. The polluted water killed thousands of birds, fish, and marine animals. Credit: USGS
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a black and white image of a small town covered in smog. you can see tall smoke stacks

Donora, Pennsylvania is a town about 20 miles south of Pittsburgh. In 1948, A thick smog just before Halloween covered the town, killing 20 citizens. It's cited as one of the worst air pollution events in U.S. history. Credit: National Library of Medicine/Public Domain

a person sits on top of an old car looking out over a hill at a smoggy sky

For about three days, the steel and wire plants and zinc works in Donora blanketed the town in smog. Credit: National Library of Medicine/Public Domain

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smoke stacks can faintly be seen through a thick smog

Within 12 hours of the smog, 17 were dead and 1,440 were affected by serious respiratory illness and another 4,470 individuals suffered mild or moderate symptoms. Credit: National Library of Medicine/Public Domain

“[Today] the individuals who live in the shadow of these big industrial facilities like refineries have no idea what pollution they’re being exposed to right now.”
— Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council

smog over homes

The exposure to large amounts of pollutants helped catalyze the Clean Air Act, that was eventually established in 1970. Credit: National Library of Medicine/Public Domain

a smoggy factory. in front of it is a sign that reads "donora next to yours the best town in the usa"

Credit: National Library of Medicine/Public Domain


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About Lauren J. Young

Lauren J. Young is Science Friday’s digital producer. When she’s not shelving books as a library assistant, she’s adding to her impressive Pez dispenser collection.

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