1969 : Rouge River Flames Reach 50 Feet in Height

October 9, 2019 all-day

A news story published in the Detroit Free Press October 10, 1969, a day after the fire.A news story published in the Detroit Free Press October 10, 1969, a day after the fire. (Photo: Detroit Free Press archives)

On October 9, 1969, the Rouge River burst into flames over 50 feet high. It burned for hours near Zug Island just 1,000 feet away from the I-75 bridge — the result of pollution and neglect.

The Rouge River was one of three major rivers — the Cuyahoga and Buffalo rivers being the others — that burned in the late 1960s in what is now known as the Rust Belt, igniting a push for progressive environmental policy under the Nixon administration.

The waterway’s strategic location led to its exploitation and it being treated as a “working river used for industry and commerce,” rather than part of an ecosystem said John Hartig, author of “Burning Rivers,” one of the few books that chronicles the Rouge’s fiery history.

Hartig highlighted several “tipping points” that contributed to the Rouge River’s decay and led to its eventual revival.

Detroit was the leading supplier of military goods in the U.S., supplying 10% of all military output during World War II. During this time, oil, heavy metals and many other contaminants were discharged into the Rogue in “unbelievable amounts,” Hartig said.

About 5.93 million gallons of oil were dumped into the Rouge and Detroit rivers each year from 1946 to 1948. It only takes 1 gallon of oil to contaminate 1 million gallons of water, Hartig said. That means the amount of oil dumped each year in that time frame contaminated 5.93 trillion gallons of water. Lake Erie’s western basin holds 6.4 trillion gallons of water.

“Remember, we were the Arsenal of Democracy,” Hartig told the Free Press. “There were no environmental controls. Everything was geared around winning the war, but there was a cost to that.”

There were nearly instant repercussions following mass production in Detroit during World War II. About 11,000 ducks and geese died in the winter of 1948, according to Hartig’s book.

“Hunters collected the oil-soaked carcasses of waterfowl, threw them into their pickup trucks, drove them to the State Capitol in Lansing, and dumped them on the Capitol lawn in protest,” Hartig wrote.

That act of protest didn’t change much, and the fire of 1969 garnered little media attention, Hartig said, but did influence environmentally protective policy in the following years.

Although progress was sluggish, the health of the Rouge River began to improve following the fire, which was caused by sparks from a torch igniting oil-soaked debris. Regulations tightened what substances and in what amount could be discharged into the river.

“Oil is not being dumped anymore. There are strict limitations on oil discharge,” Hartig said. “Every once in a while, there is a small spill that occurs, but nothing compared to what it was in 1969 and 1948. It’s just amazing how much oil was coming out then — it’s dramatically less now.”

The last major Rouge River oil spill occurred in April 2002. A coalition of government agencies, including the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, reported that a total of 322,820 gallons of mixed diesel and waste lubricating oil were released during two discharges in the same week in the Rouge and Detroit rivers. It remains a mystery who was behind the spills.

For years, municipalities dumped raw sewage into the river, which led to waterborne illness, including a cholera outbreak so bad in 1834, it killed 7% of Detroit, Hartig wrote.

Because of the raw sewage in the Rouge River, the waterway lacked oxygen and a “putrid” smell emitted from it until the late 1980s, said Hartig.

“Carp were dying in the concrete channels. Can you imagine that? Carp is the most pollution tolerant of fish and it couldn’t live,” Hartig said.

The final “tipping point” the Rouge River endured before things really started to turn around happened in 1985 when a 23-year-old man fell into the river, swallowed water and died of Leptospirosis, or rat bite fever.

Source : , “50 years after Rouge River fire, Donald Trump policy may jeopardize decades of progress”, Detroit Free Press, October 7, 2019.

Burning Rivers – Revival of Four Urban-Industrial Rivers that Caught on Fire,” a 2010 book by Michigan environmental hero John Hartig, chronicles the shameful and lasting damage done to the greatest rivers in the most spectacular freshwater ecosystem on our planet. More importantly, Hartig recounts the concerted and successful efforts to restore the rivers – not to their natural state, but at least within hailing distance of acceptable water quality.

When Our Rivers Caught Fire“, Michigan Environmental Council, July 11, 2011.