There was smoke, fire and a thick haze over the area that lasted for hours.
From a distance, it looked like Southwest Detroit was on fire, but it actually was a raging blaze of debris in the polluted Rouge River.
That was 50 years ago on Oct. 9, and just prior to the anniversary U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-12th District) and Rashida Tlaib (D-13th District) took a kayak down the river that shows no visual reminders of the massive chaos believed to have been caused by a welding torch igniting the debris.
The two lawmakers made the trek in a kayak to highlight the years of environmental cleanup of the river since the historic fire five decades ago.
They got into kayaks at the Melvindale Civic Arena, passed through both of their congressional districts, and ended their voyage at Belanger Park in River Rouge.
Along the way they also saw the Ford Rouge Plant, AK Steel, Marathon Oil, and Great Lakes Steel.
The wildlife, which included eagles, herrings, loons, geese, painted turtles, ducks and a myriad of other species, appeared to intrigue both of them.
“The Rouge River fire was a turning point in the environmental history of the U.S.,” Dingell said. “After the fire, some got serious, rolled up their sleeves, knew it was right and began a very long process of cleaning up decades of pollution. Today, we are able to kayak the river and enjoy all it has to offer. This is what 50 years of work looks like, but we can’t turn the needle back now. We must continue to cleanup and not allow new chemicals and threats to endanger our water.”
Tlaib was appreciative of the opportunity to take the tour of the river, thanking the Friends of the Rouge and partners for putting it all together for them.
She said she was able to see firsthand the importance of protecting area waterways.
“Fifty years ago the Rouge River caught on fire because it was heavily polluted,” Tlaib said. “We still have so much work to do in cleaning it and its watershed up. This work will also help in continuing to create safe fishing and greenways for families. I look forward to working with Rep. Dingell and my other colleagues in the Michigan delegation to ensure that we not only safeguard the environmental progress we’ve made, but expand on it as well.”
The fire is believed to have jump started the passage of the Clean Water Act in the late 1960s.
The river has made a comeback from the more than 5.9 gallons of oil that was dumped into it and the other Detroit rivers annually from the late 1940s to the mid 1950s.
Even the wildlife has increased.
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