On June 22, 1969, just before noon, an oil slick and assorted debris under a railroad trestle on the Cuyahoga River caught fire. The fire attracted national media attention, and helped prompt the passage of federal environmental laws. A river on fire was a symbol of earth in need of repair, and federal regulation was the reparative tool of choice. Much of the Cuyahoga story is mythology, however, a fable with powerful symbolic force. The river did burn in 1969 - as it and other rivers had burned many times before - and today the Cuyahoga and many U.S. rivers are far less polluted. But so much else of what we "know" about the 1969 fire is simply not so. The conventional narratives, of a river abandoned by its local community, of water pollution at its zenith, of conventional legal doctrines impotent in the face of environmental harms, and of a beneficent federal government rushing in to save the day, is misleading in many respects. This paper revisits the context and history of the legendary Cuyahoga River fire to reveal a more complex story about the causes and consequences of various institutional choices in environmental law. The aim is to provide additional perspective to the questions of institutional choice which underlie environmental policy, and to suggest that the decision to reallocate primary authority over water quality to the federal government was neither inevitable nor an unmitigated blessing.


Environment, Cuyahoga River

Publication Date


Document Type


Place of Original Publication

Fordham Environmental Law Journal

Publication Information

14 Fordham Environmental Law Journal 89 (2002)


COinS Jonathan H. Adler Faculty Bio