Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Fire Water: A Cautionary Tale of Toxic Water Pollution

Waterways around the world are filled with a highly flammable combination of chemical pollution, fossil fuels and sewage. This toxic industrial cocktail has caused a number of rivers, lakes and canals to catch fire. People living near fracking wells know what it is like to have flammable tap water. Here are two recent examples of burning water and one infamous fire that helped augur meaningful change.

On Friday May 15th, Bellandur Lake in Bangalore India caught fire after being covered in several feet of toxic foam. The black sewage infested water contains both oil and phosphorus from untreated industrial waste. The problem has been exacerbated in recent years due to the clearing and development of wetlands that once helped to filter pollutants. The heavily polluted lake burst into flames that billowed clouds of putrid smoke.

Of course the Indian lake is hardly the only body of water to catch fire. In March 2014 a river in eastern china also caught fire due to oil and chemical pollution from factories upstream. The flames from the water born blaze shot 16 feet into the air and destroyed several cars that were parked by the waters edge. The inferno was eventually extinguished by firemen from the city of Wenzhou.

There have been at least four fires on Great Lakes tributaries, all of which were caused by pollution and industrialization. These fires occurred on the Chicago, Buffalo, Rouge and Cuyahoga Rivers.

The Cuyahoga River near downtown Cleveland is the most infamous for having caught fire. There were actually at least two fires one in 1952 and 17 years later the better known fire of 1969. The later fire morphed into a potent symbol that provided the impetus for the first Earth Day in 1970. It also helped to inspire a national environmental movement and a range of legislative and regulatory efforts. To this day environmental regulators use the Cuyahoga River debacle as fodder to make their case against pollution.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement were direct corollaries of the Cuyahoga River fire. Today the river is relatively clean which proves that a consorted legislative effort can go a long way towards reducing water-born pollution.

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