There are the reports from Politicoand The Washington Post that say the White House sent a proposal to the EPA on Monday that would slash the agency’s budget by about a quarter and eliminate a fifth of the agency’s workers. Large cuts to state grant programs even have Congressional Republicans worried and as former Oklahoma AG Scott Pruitt settles in to lead an agency he had often fought in court, he’s promised to continue with its basic mission (while stripping climate change from its vocabulary).Whatever happens to the EPA, this might be a good time to reflect on its legacy, especially in urban spaces.
Though environmentalism conjures “America the Beautiful” images of purple mountains and unspoiled wilderness, much of the EPA’s heaviest lifting in rescuing this nation from its own filth happened in cities.
Long before fracking made tap water ignitable, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught on fire—a lot. The saga is a well-trod part of the EPA’s origin story, but it’s still worth revisiting. A 1969 river fire caught Time’s attention in an article on American sewage systems, headlined in print as “The Cities: The Price of Optimism.” Here’s the excerpt on the Cuyahoga.
No Visible Life. Some river! Chocolate brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows. “Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown,” Cleveland's citizens joke grimly. “He decays.” The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration dryly notes: “The lower Cuyahoga has no visible life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes.” It is also—literally —a fire hazard. A few weeks ago, the oil-slicked river burst into flames and burned with such intensity that two railroad bridges spanning it were nearly destroyed. “What a terrible reflection on our city,” said Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes sadly.
By 1969, the Cuyahoga had actually caught fire at least 13 times before. (In fact, Time used a 1952 fire photo for the story.) Still, that conflagration served as such a vivid demonstration of water pollution that it led to the creation of the EPA in 1970, and then to passing the Clean Water Act in 1972. Today, the Cuyahoga has improved dramatically.