Is this a new Cuyahoga moment in our history?


Previous posts on this topic: here and here.

For years, when I’m “out and about” in our world I’ve made it a practice of picking up the local newspaper, however humble or exalted.

So, when we were about to leave Denver on June 6, I picked up the Sunday Denver Post, and when I wasn’t in the drivers seat, took time to read the news. Colorado and mountain west personalities and U.S. Energy Policy are very close kin, and the Post had two most interesting articles which can be accessed here and here and speak for themselves. Tidbit: The first words in the Post lead article say “[from] its creation in 1982, the Minerals Management Service…has been a conflicted agency.” In 1982, Department of Interior was headed by James Watt in the administration of Ronald Reagan, but it is impossible to find this most basic fact in either the articles or at the MMS website.

But as the deepwater catastrophe continues in the Gulf of Mexico, my memories go back to a memorable trip I took in early August of 1968.

I was a junior high school geography teacher back then, and the opportunity arose to get in my Volkswagen and take a solitary tour through parts of the northeast U.S. and southern Canada. I set a goal (which I met) of spending no more than $10 a day TOTAL for food and lodging, and off I went, with my starting and ending point of Columbus, Ohio. I wanted to see some of the geography about which I was teaching. I remember the trip vividly. Here is the thumbnail synopsis: (I was young, then, and I could accomplish a lot in what were some very long days of trying to see everything possible).

First night, Charleston W Va, including seeing a giant chemical plant on the Kanawha River
Second night, Fredericksburg VA on the Rappahannock, after seeing giant coal trains just into Virginia, driving by the military complex at Norfolk-Newport News; Colonial Williamsburg
Third night, some unremembered town in the exhausted Anthracite mining district of Pennsylvania, after driving through Washington DC, which was not recovered from the 1968 riots after MLK’s assassination; Gettysburg; a tour of the Hershey Chocolate Factory (we watched Hershey Kisses being made!)
Fourth night, Elmira NY, once a home of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain)
Fifth night, some forgotten tiny town near Lake Ontario in northern NY after a day of mostly just driving, after a morning visit to Corning Glass Works in Corning NY. (My vivid memory here was checking in to the hotel, and asking for a room key, and getting a blank stare. They didn’t have keys…. This was just one of many examples of my high quality accomodations.)
Sixth night, Pembroke, on the Ottawa River in Ontario, seeing rural Ontario to and from, and log rafts on the Ottawa River.
Seventh and probably last night, Lockport NY, on the old Erie Canal, and not far from Niagara Falls.

The last day I drove along Lake Erie very early in the morning, and reached my destination of Oil Creek State Park near Titusville PA when no one was around. This was ground zero of American oil in 1859. Much to my surprise, a pump was running and a trickle of oil was coming out of a spigot. I rummaged in a garbage can and found an empty Iron City beer bottle, and filled it with Pennsylvania crude, turned on the screw cap and went on to see United States Steel in Pittsburgh before finishing the last leg to Columbus and home.

It was a warm day, and I forgot a basic physical fact: heated oil expands. I came back to my car and the oil had exploded the beer bottle, and I had a mess on the floor of my back seat. It was my first oil spill….

But that doesn’t explain the title of this post.

A year later, in Cleveland OH, the Cuyahoga River caught fire. In the same time frame, Lake Erie became almost a dead lake, and concern was raised about those wonderful phosphate rich detergents that not only were remarkable cleaners, but devastated the environment. We were killing ourselves. The American People Noticed.

In 1972 Congress passed the Clean Water Act.

It occurs to me that my little jaunt as a young geography teacher in 1968 was a look at the beginning of the end of the good old days of our business as usual U.S. industrial history. But changing habits is a terribly hard exercise.

Maybe the deepwater catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico will be the U.S. “Cuyahoga moment” of 2010. We are the ones who can make it so.