Home › Forums › Discuss U.S. History Since 1877 › Cuyahoga River and Creation of EPA
- This topic has 14 replies, 4 voices, and was last updated 10 years, 7 months ago by chris.stone.
June 6, 2012 at 3:42 pm #15696
Hi, a statist is trying to argue that the Cuyahoga River is the reason why we need the state to protect our environment because the river was catching on fire before we had the wonderful government come along and protect us from pollution.
According to Wikipedia:
The 1969 Cuyahoga River fire helped spur an avalanche of water pollution control activities resulting in the Clean Water Act, Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and the creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA).
So, how did this river get so polluted to begin with? Weren’t property rights being enforced? How to I make my case against this argument that rivers will become polluted and start catching on fire if it were not for the EPA?
I’ve read how the FDA got created through Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, but this story about how the EPA got created is all new to me. Anything you can add to help me defeat this statist argument will be appreciated.
Thanks.June 6, 2012 at 4:32 pm #15697
Well, I’m not familiar with the specifics on that river, but my general understanding is that these sort of things (pollution) occur when you have “tragedy of the commons” scenario.
If the river is communally “owned” then everybody owns it and nobody owns it. Companies pollute it but no one has a legal basis to do anything about it because they have no legal standing. Local government’s should do something but don’t more often than not due to either incompetence or cronyism (being paid off to look the other way).
If landowners could also own part of the river they would each have an incentive to see that their property is not violated through pollution and would have legal standing to sue any polluter.
Well defined and enforced property rights pretty much solves every single environmental issue. Pollution is only a problem because our current system allows for “public” spaces that have no protection, those public spaces then become public dumping grounds and we then act surprised that some people would shift cost burdens from themselves to society at large (polluters) so the statists see no other solution than to give the government more power to fix the very problem they created in the first place by not enforcing property rights.June 6, 2012 at 5:02 pm #15698
FYI: Krugman himself uses this statist argument for environmental protection:
Environmentalism began as a response to pollution that everyone could see. The spill in the gulf recalls the 1969 blowout that coated the beaches of Santa Barbara in oil. But 1969 was also the year the Cuyahoga River, which flows through Cleveland, caught fire. Meanwhile, Lake Erie was widely declared “dead,” its waters contaminated by algal blooms. And major U.S. cities — especially, but by no means only, Los Angeles — were often cloaked in thick, acrid smog.
It wasn’t that hard, under the circumstances, to mobilize political support for action. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded, the Clean Water Act was enacted, and America began making headway against its most visible environmental problems.
I understand the tragedy of the commons, but is there any historical evidence that this was the case with the Cuyahoga River? I’m trying to learn how it became so polluted.
 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/03/opinion/03krugman.htmlJune 6, 2012 at 6:25 pm #15699
In this video from 1967 at 2:20 in they say that businesses downstream had to clean the water in order to use it. This does not make any sense. Why would companies downstream have to be responsible for cleaning the water polluted by companies upstream?? Is there any historical evidence of downstream companies trying to sue? Where there any legal property owners for the river?June 6, 2012 at 9:25 pm #15700
I also found this, no laws against dumping whatever you want in the river. But what about lawsuits? Private property rights, etc? It feels like I’m only getting half of the story here. I can’t believe that every single company along the river in Akron and Cleveland was happy with dumping all their waste into it.
–Pollution has been the main factor in the Cuyahoga River. It was very prevalent in the early 1800’s as well as now. Industry and population have made the river become a “flowing dump”. Raw sewage was a big problem, because it was directly dumped into the Cuyahoga River. Cleveland started to have rapid growth and had about 40,000 people living there at that time.
–Industry was a prime source in the pollution. There were no laws or rules of what one could dump in the river. Refining oil was a big industry in that time. John D. Rockefeller made it possible for the oil business to come to Cleveland. There were many things being dumped in the river such as: gasoline, oil, paint, and metals. The river was called “a rainbow of many different colors”. Before the turn of the century it was thought that “a dirty river was sign of prosperity.” June 11, 2012 at 2:48 pm #15701
Thanks to the Cuyahoga river which started the Clean Water Act and the EPA, we now have the EPA trying to regulate ditches and gullies on private land.
Unfortunately I cannot argue against the formation of the EPA and the Clean Water Act, because in a free market rivers like the Cuyahoga start catching on fire.
Is there no historical evidence whatsoever to suggest that a free market does *not* cause rivers to start catching on fire?
Am I the only one who thinks this is important?July 14, 2012 at 4:29 pm #15702
Check out this picture….July 22, 2012 at 1:33 am #15703woodsParticipant
I don’t know anything about the history of this river, but I agree completely that property rights solve these problems.July 22, 2012 at 7:55 am #15704
Xulchris – you will likely not find any “free market” rivers or othe public spaces that have not been polluted because that is an oxymoron. You can’t have a free market of public space, it is either private or public…and as we have seen public spaces become public dumping grounds all too often because the public stewards are poor executors of their duties. If you want to find an example of a non-polluted river with out government involvement I’d suggest looking to see if there has ever been anywhere a completely privately owned river or lake…I don’t know if such a thing exists but if it does that’s where you’ll find evidence of a private sphere unpolluted natural resource…or if polluted then remedied through private party suits.July 22, 2012 at 3:00 pm #15705
I just know Krugman is going to nail you on this one in a debate.
He’s going to say this is proof why we need an EPA and government. Krugman is going to claim that the river was privately owned back then.
I can’t imagine that river being public property. Was that typical of rivers in the United States?
If that was the only river in the US that was public property, then that’s a huge win for us. But if most rivers back then were privately owned then it would be pretty hard to dispute a claim that the river wasn’t public property.July 22, 2012 at 3:11 pm #15706
@porcupine: Are you telling me that all major rivers throughout the history of the United States have be publicly owned?
I thought it would be just the opposite. I thought we grew up in a country where ownership of land include rivers.
You can’t just claim that since the river was polluted it therefore must have be publicly owned.
BTW, I can’t find any evidence that says this river was owned by the State of Ohio, or any other municipalities. Can you?July 22, 2012 at 3:39 pm #15707
@XulChris: they are not “owned” per se, rather they are like a “no mans land” that is put under the stewardship of the states or the federal government. Rivers that cross state boundaries are regulated under the commerce clause. And I quote from Wikipedia “The commerce clause provides comprehensive powers to the United States over navigable waters.” read more here -> http://goo.gl/HAkxw
Even when rivers abut land that one owns you do not own that part of the river, rather you are required to grant an easement to it and thus lose all rights to it (like homeowners that must grant an easement to the government for any road that passes by their property – so that homeowners can not erect tolls or otherwise obstruct passage. The only way I think a private person could own a river is if it went in a circle within a single state and you own all the surrounding land. Is it impossible that there are any privately own rivers (as in not required to grant easement rights to the state)… no… but given the power of the federal government with respect to its authority over navigable waters I highly doubt it.July 24, 2012 at 5:21 pm #15708mpelkowskiMember
Thinking back to my Property Law classes there were a string of cases that seriously limited common law private rights of action for Nuisance and other similar torts which can be used as a method of private environmental regulation. This shift occurred in the mid to late 19th Century in an attempt to help foster the industrial revolution. I will open my seriously dusty law school text book later to see if I can find any actual citations.
Thus, I believe that the Krugman argument and others like it can be defeated by showing that it was a failure of the Court’s to enforce the common law private rights of action that allowed corporations to pollute at ease. So long as the particular industry did not tick off the legislature they had a near free pass to pollute. No free pass when your neighbor can sue for any damages caused.
With regard to property rights in water (again going off memory here), the old English rule was a straight first in time, first in right property ownership. Whoever first acquired the waterway owned it to the exclusion of others.
This English rule was used in certain western US territories because of the scarcity of water sources and lack of population density.
The more Eastern US states adopted a system of Riparian rights which essentially provided that a party who owns land that abuts a waterway has the right of reasonable use. You may use the water in any way that does not interfere with the reasonable use by others. But as mentioned above, the Court’s became pro-industry during the industrial revolution.July 26, 2012 at 3:36 am #15709
Thanks Michael! I hope you can find something we could point to.
BTW, Tom, I just downloaded the Tom Woods android application onto my cell phone! 🙂October 28, 2012 at 5:26 pm #15710
Did anyone watch the Molyneux vs Sam Seder debate? Seder hit Molyneux with the Cuyahoga river.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1AcUkA0tq28 (Cuyahoga river discussion starts at 25:00 minutes in)
I thought Stefan handled it pretty well.
Check out this picture…
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