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Issue Date: July 2009


The Trailblazer

Louis Stokes was a freshman congressman representing Cleveland in June 1969 when the Cuyahoga River caught fire for the last time. In 1970, he convinced Congress to approve an innovative program to clean up the river: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was authorized to remove debris and dredge the riverbed and banks to improve water quality and protect fish and wildlife. Two years later, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, the main environmental law protecting rivers and lakes from pollution.
Erick Trickey
trickey@clevelandmagazine.com
I was sworn into office in January of ’69, so this was one of the major events that, as a young congressman, I was subjected to trying to respond to.

Being in Washington was very embarrassing at that time, when on the national news, you’d hear about the river that caught fire in Cleveland or about Ralph Perk setting his hair on fire. You’d be teased from time to time [by other congressmen]. But those who had responsibility in that area, they understood what I was trying to do.

I remember sitting down with congressman [James] Howard, [a member] of the subcommittee having jurisdiction over water projects. I explained to him that this was a major event, where across the country Cuyahoga County was being laughed at. I said this would be an excellent project for Congress: If we could clean up the Cuyahoga River, it would demonstrate that you could clean up any body of water in the nation.

I was very proud I was able to get that legislation passed and help begin the [effort on] the Cuyahoga River that has now made it a clean, navigable body of water.

I think issues such as the Cuyahoga River’s burning were part and parcel of people saying, “We have to be able to provide clean air and clean water and a clean environment.” My brother, Carl, [Cleveland’s mayor,] came to Washington and testified about the need for a Clean Water Act.

We were very proud when the warehouse area grew up around the Cuyahoga River and the Towpath [was redeveloped]. It’s an asset of the city, to be able to go down and see what has been done since 1970.

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