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Protecting the rivers

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12/20/2016 - John Hartig was a senior high school student in 1969 when he and his classmates in Allen Park watched a plume of smoke rise from the Rouge River.

"You thought the Ford Rouge plant was burning," he said, recalling events of that October 9th day. "When we got home, everyone found out the Rouge River caught on fire."

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As it turned out, the fire was started when someone dropped an acetylene torch into the water, igniting a thick layer of oil and wood debris floating on the surface. Fueled by decades of pollution, flames rose 50 feet into the air as dozens of firefighters worked for hours to put out the blaze, even employing the help of a Detroit fireboat.

In 2016, the idea that a major river could be so polluted that it could constitute a fire hazard may seem unfathomable, but 47 years ago, such incidents had become almost commonplace. Just four months before the Rouge River fire, Cleveland's Cuyahoga River caught fire for the 10th time in its history when a passing train sparked oil and debris on the river's surface. In 1968, a welding torch dropped in the Buffalo River ignited that river on a cold January day. In Illinois, the Chicago River had been a source of fuel for oil fires since the late 19th Century.

The lack of any meaningful environmental laws allowed rivers like the Rouge, Clinton and others in the Great Lakes region to become a dumping ground for industrial facilities and municipal wastewater plants. By 1985, the contamination in the Rouge led to the death of Novi man Kenneth Hagstrom, who contracted leptospirosis, or "rat fever," after falling into the river near Beech Daly Road in Redford, and swallowing the water.

Hartig, who has worked to address water quality issues for more than three decades as an environmental scientist, chronicled the long history of river pollution in his 2010 book, "Burning Rivers: Revival of Four Urban-Industrial Rivers that Caught on Fire."

"You have to remember how much oil was on the water," said Hartig, who said about 5.9 million gallons of oil and other petroleum products were dumped into the Rouge and Detroit rivers each year in 1946 through 1948, alone.

Beneath the black oily surface, the Rouge River's water had been tainted from municipal sewage and industrial waste, depleting from it any trace of oxygen needed to support life. The water itself, Hartig said, had been stained orange by a mix of chemicals used in the steelmaking process known as "pickle liquor."

"You would see the river and it would be all oil," Hartig said. "Pickle liquor has an orange color, and you wouldn't know it was there until a boat went by and left an orange wake. It was just black and orange on the river."

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