Windsor·Q&A

'We have more to do': The 1969 Rouge River fire remembered

The Rouge River used to be so polluted that in 1969 it burst into flames.

The Detroit, Mich. river burned for seven hours on Oct. 9, 1969 — 50 years ago

Detroit's Rouge River is shown in this 2002 photo. (CBC News)

The Rouge River used to be so polluted that in 1969 it burst into flames.

The Detroit, Mich. river burned for seven hours on Oct. 9, 1969 — 50 years ago. The 204-kilometre river flows into the Detroit River at Zug Island, through a Detroit industrial neighbourhood. 

Michigan environmentalist John Hartig chronicled the damage done to four urban-industrial rivers in the Great Lakes area in a 2011 book called 'Burning Rivers.' Hartig spoke to Windsor Morning's Tony Doucette about the fire and what led up to the ignition. 

How can a river catch fire?

Fifty years ago there was so much oil from the industrial section, with wooden debris soaked in oil ... an acetylene torch was dropped in the river and it caught on fire. 

How did the Rouge River get that dirty?

Think about Detroit being the arsenal of democracy ... the single purpose was the win World War II. There weren't many pollution controls. Oil was covering much of the industrial portion of the Rouge. Raw sewage had overflowed. Oxygen in some cases was absent in the river. Even carp, peregrine falcons couldn't live there.

The Rouge was perceived as a 'working river' that supported industry and commerce. Pollution was just part of the cost of doing business. 

That same summer that the Rouge burned, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire and the timing of that was really interesting.

It was like a perfect storm ... right when the national media started to cover the environment in a serious way. Collectively, that [coverage] led to a spring of calling for cleanup of polluted waterways.

What happened in the aftermath of the fire — was there immediate action to clean it up?

Immediately following the fire, [media coverage] started to build. The very first Earth Day — in 1970, less than a year later — the CAW from here in Windsor and the UAW from Detroit came out and held a wake on the Detroit River, symbolizing the death of the Detroit and Rouge Rivers. That got national and international attention.

That outcry over pollution led to many laws, like the Canada Water Act of 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act, The Clean Water Act, the Great Lakes Water Quality agreement of 1972. 

What is the condition of the Rouge River today?

Today what we see is the common oil spills from 1969 are gone. The raw sewage has been substantially reduced because of spending on combined sewer overflows. We have fish coming back to the river. Even peregine falcons are back.

This doesn't mean we're done. We have more to do. 

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