Minor Thoughts from me to you

Regulation Burnt the Cuyahoga

A few days ago, I wrote about government regulators preventing progress. You may be interested in another example.

My mother was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. By itself this fact is not particularly exciting. But, when I was younger, I learned about the burning Cuyahoga River. Once I realized what had happened, I never lost an opportunity to tease my mother about her hometown.

Recently, I learned the rest of the story. It turns out that excessive government regulation bears a large amount of the blame for the fire.

Incomes were rising and concern about industrial wastes was mounting. Pollutants were corroding sewage treatment systems and impeding their operation. In another part of the state, the Ohio River Sanitation Commission, representing the eight states that border the Ohio River (which runs along Ohio's southern border), developed innovations to reduce pollution. The municipalities and the industries along the Ohio began to invest in pollution control technology.

Unfortunately, this progress soon ended. The evolving common law and regional compacts hit a snag in 1951 when the state of Ohio created the Ohio Water Pollution Control Board. The authorizing law sounded good to the citizens of Ohio. It stated that it is "unlawful" to pollute any Ohio waters. However, the law continues: ". . . except in such cases where the water pollution control board has issued a valid and unexpired permit."(3)

The board issued or denied permits depending on whether the discharger was located on an already-degraded river classified as "industrial use" or on trout streams classified as "recreational use." Trout streams were preserved; dischargers were allowed to pollute industrial streams. The growing tendency of the courts to insist on protecting private rights against harm from pollution was replaced by a public decision-making body that allowed pollution where it thought it was appropriate.

Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes, who helped draw attention to the Cuyahoga fire, criticized the state for letting industries pollute. "We have no jurisdiction over what is dumped in there. . . . The state gives [industry] a license to pollute," the Cleveland Plain Dealer quoted him as saying (June 24, 1969). Stokes was not far off the mark.


In sum, the Cuyahoga fire, which burns on in people's memory as a symbol of industrial indifference, should also be viewed as a symbol of the weaknesses of public regulation.

It's worth reading the whole thing, if only to see what I left out.

Regulation will always be "captured" by those who have a vested interest in the regulations. Rather than strictly controlling an industry, the regulatory agency will soon be controlled by the industry. This is what is happening (has happened) to the FDA and this is what contributed to the Cuyahoga River fire.

Whatever you do, don't put your faith in a regulatory agency. It will only let you down.