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To promote the 40th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, President Obama on Tuesday singled out a burning river in Cleveland -- 41 years ago -- as a catalyst for the annual event that celebrates environmental values. Fair enough, but the incident has been greatly exaggerated over the years and is a painful reminder for people in a city still branded with the image long after cleanup efforts improved the river and nearby Lake Erie.
"Forty-one years ago, in the city of Cleveland, people watched in horror as the Cuyahoga River -- choked with debris and covered in oil -- caught on fire," Obama said in a statement. "Images of the burning Cuyahoga shocked a nation, and it led one Wisconsin senator the following year to organize the first Earth Day to call attention to the dangers of ignoring our environment."
The nation was, indeed, shocked by the news, but there were few images of it and relatively few Clevelanders were even aware of the brief blaze when it broke out on a flotilla of oil debris on June 22, 1969. The river, flowing through an industrial area called the Flats, had burned at least eight times before, dating back to the late 1860s. The fire was put out in less than half an hour and caused less than $100,000 in damage, according to the Plain Dealer. The next day, neither Cleveland newspaper -- the Plain Dealer or the old Cleveland Press -- produced photos of the fire, although they ran pictures of a smoldering railroad trestle above it.
Over the years, the modest event took on almost mythical proportions -- at least one news report claimed Lake Erie caught fire.
President Obama meant no offense to Cleveland. He was merely urging Americans to work in their communities, schools and businesses -- as well as their own homes -- to improve the quality of the air they breathe, and the water they drink and swim in. The White House also unveiled a Web site as a new Earth Day guide, inviting Americans to use it to "tell us your story about what you're doing to make a difference" for the environment.
The oil-slick fire on the crooked river in Cleveland no doubt contributed to the passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act. And Clevelanders have gotten use to the never-ending taunts about the infamous incident -- they've even named a beer after it: Great Lakes Brewery's Burning River Ale, a nice amber.
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