In 1969 the Rouge River burned. 50 years and more than a billion dollars later, life has returned to the water

Nobody cared when the Rouge River caught fire. Why would they? Before 1969, rivers that meandered through America’s industrial heartland were often on fire. It was the cost of big business and economic expansion. And there was no greater symbol of the country’s industrial momentum carrying it forward than the Ford Plant that sat on the Rouge River. 

The industry that drove much of Detroit’s growth in the 19th and early-20th centuries relied on the city’s waterways for transportation. Like a bloodstream through the body, the region’s tributaries offered much-needed access inland to the Great Lakes. The ore shipped to the city was brought to factories that lined the river’s banks. Due to a lack of environmental regulation, a business-first mantra and general apathy toward mother nature, those factories polluted much of the river.

Then, on Oct. 9, 1969, a construction worker accidentally dropped a torch on the river. About 3,000 gallons of oil had accidentally spilled from the Shell Oil Company refinery that sits close to the I-75 overpass. The torch ignited the oil and flames climbed 50 feet into the air and it took 65 men and 10 pieces of equipment to put out the fire. 

And hardly anyone cared.

“Flames from the blaze fed by oil-soaked debris on the north bank of the river and oil, which had spilled from a Shell Oil Co. storage depot on the south bank rose over 50 feet high, according to Detroit fireman,” read a three-column story in the Detroit Free Press the day after the fire. The news brief made it on to page 11-C of the newspaper, sharing space with the classified ads.

The original story reported in the Detroit Free Press covering the fire on the Rouge River. It was published on page 11-C (Detroit Historical Society)

“The most shocking thing was that it merited so little press attention,” said Marie McCormick, executive director of the Friends of the Rouge. “There wasn’t much opposition or care. Some people characterize it as peak pollution and environmental indifference. The cost of doing business for 100 years.” 

In the 50 years that have passed since that combustible day, the river has gone through a dramatic transformation. From the return of the sensitive Stonefly insect to improving levels of dissolved oxygen - people are now free to paddle the river without worry that contact with the water would harm them. Each mark of restoration checks a box in the column of progress for the thousands of volunteers and workers that have labored to restore the river. 

However, it’s not only the return of wildlife that signifies an improvement in the waterway. The Rouge River's restoration demanded collaboration across every form of government, and its progress represents one of the greatest environmental success stories in recent memory. 

One of the only known photos taken of the fire (Detroit Historical Society)

Michigan’s most polluted river

The Rouge River Watershed dominates much of the southeast Michigan landscape. From Pontiac to Belleville, from Ypsilanti to Detroit, the land that drains into the river encompasses 467 square miles. And splitting the middle of this region is the Rouge River, a 127-mile river that caters to numerous tributaries. This spiderweb of water expands across the region, where 1.35 million people across 48 municipalities live.

But before all these numbers were calculated and the land across this region became urbanized, before the Detroit skyline rose and industry dominated the region, there were beavers everywhere. Early numbers estimate there used to be 10 million beavers that inhabited the region. But the arrival of French fur trappers in the 1600’s seeking to alleviate Europe’s insatiable hunger for fur led to a virtual decimation of the beaver population. By the mid-1880’s, they were virtually extinct.

The wheels of industry would only spin faster after European colonization became entrenched in the region. Due to Detroit’s geographical blessing on the Great Lakes, it became an intersection of immigration and trade. Detroit’s population grew in the 1800s before exploding in the 1900s. Spurring that growth was the boon of industry in the area, meandering from logging and mining, eventually settling on agriculture and then manufacturing.

“The big point, in terms of the downfall of the river, was because there were so many people coming,” McCormick said. “It was an era characterized by immigration, industrialization and rapid growth.”

The Rouge River itself was first influenced by human activity in the late 1800’s when a dredging project was undertaken for navigation. It was then dammed in the early 1910’s and 1920’s. Henry Ford later acquired 2,000 acres of the land, where the Rouge Plant would later be built. 

Ford’s modern marvel measured a mile and a half wide and employed 100,000 workers during the depression. Raw material ore that was mined in the northern Great Lakes went in the back of the structure, and classic Model T’s rolled out the front. To support such a massive effort, Ford dredged and channeled the Rouge River to the Ford plant, fundamentally altering the landscape - creating Fordson Island in the process. When it was completed in 1928, it was the largest integrated plant in the world.

Besides churning out automobiles, the plant helped drive the war machine by building bombers and tanks. Some attribute the Rouge Plant’s production to the United State’s victory in Europe and Japan during World War II. Mass production on a scale this grand had never been seen before. But that growth came at a cost. 

“It placed a lot of stress on the river - a lot of stress,” McCormick said. “Industrial discharges were a big reason for the pollution. In 1965, the Dearborn Guide called the waterway the state’s most polluted river.”

“There wasn’t much opposition or care. Some people characterize it as peak pollution and environmental indifference. The cost of doing business for 100 years.”

As industry chugged along and more factories were built and blanketing the banks of the Rouge, the river became a cocktail of toxic fumes and oil slicks. Dissolved oxygen in the river declined as wildlife biodiversity lessened. Migratory patterns of birds were disrupted as fish species most sensitive to changes in their environment died out. During the peak of pollution, any form of body contact was not recommended. 

“In 1986, the DNR sampled for fish at Fordson Island and they found 36 fish. Half were thin or had tumors. They only found six different types of fish,” said Sally Patrella, the volunteer program coordinator with the Friends of the Rouge. “In 1991, they found no fish.”

However, before any acknowledged the environmental disaster that was the Rouge River’s pollution, another river caught fire just south of it.

Rivers on Fire

Before the Clean Water Act in 1972, rivers catching on fire were a common sight. The man who wrote the book chronicling this environmental indifference actually saw the Rouge River on fire in 1969. John Hartig recounts fires there, on the Buffalo River as well as oil spills in places like Santa Barbara. The turning point came the 10th time the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire - when the story made its way into TIME Magazine.

“They did an issue on Apollo 11,” said Hartig, author of Burning Rivers. “That same issue was the first time they had their new environment section profiling the burning of the river. It was the perfect storm of everything coming together.”

The exposure that TIME brought the Cuyahoga River fire became the poster child of an environmental movement that was picking up momentum at the turn of the decade. While landmark bills like the clean water and clean air act made their way through congress, activists and government officials charged with cleaning up the environment tackled the sources of pollution.

The image that comes to mind when thinking of pollution is the pipe dumping waste into a river, or a power plant’s smokestack billowing carbon dioxide into the air. These are called “point sources” of pollution. Legislation first targeted these more obvious sources of pollution by regulating municipal wastewater treatment plants. Hartig said those easy fixes showed some improvement. 

However, McCormick said that kind of industry only contributes 2 percent of pollution in the area. “About 98 percent comes from non-point (source pollution).”

Far less obvious, but much more ubiquitous, non-point source pollution is all the runoff that comes from roads, neighborhoods and agricultural land that makes its way into rivers and lakes. A more modern example that results from this pollution is the algal blooms that form in Lake Erie, which are caused by runoff from agricultural land when rain carries fertilizers into rivers that dump into the Great Lake. A similar scenario plays out on the Rouge River, where 48 different communities border.

“Think of the Rouge, all 48 groups, 1.3 million people contributing non-point source pollution,” Hartig said. “You talk about complexity, that’s complex. People believe in strong property rights. Think ‘you can’t tell me what to do on my land.’”

The job of galvanizing every community embedded in the 467 square miles of the Rouge River Watershed would be no easy task. And before 1985, little action was taken by the government or industry to clean up the river. Things changed however after a man fell into the Rouge River, contracted rat fever and died.

The man unknowingly became a martyr for restoration efforts; his death the result of a problem the state could no longer ignore. The health department warned the public to avoid the river and the Department of Natural Resources and the Michigan Water Resources Commission began pushing for strategies to clean up the river.

With the assistance of state departments and county governments, the Rouge River Remedial Action Plan Advisory Council (RRAC) came out with a 20-year plan to clean up the watershed. The group initially estimated in the early 90’s that it would take $900 million to clean up the area. The price tag would eventually grow to $2 billion. 

A little later, a cooperative effort between agencies at the federal, state and local level created the Rouge River National Wet Weather Demonstration Project, which was initiated in Wayne County in 1993. This project really cracked the code of what it would take to clean up the Rouge River.  Through a series of fundraising and lobbying - and the backing of former Congressman John Dingell - the project acquired $350 million in federal funds, which was matched and exceeded by local community sources.

The Rouge Project first focused on inefficient and sewage systems that were prone to flooding when they were inundated with water. Knowing those efforts wouldn’t be enough, the project later broadened its duties to modernizing infrastructure that could better control stormwater runoff, while also repairing the wetlands, fisheries, and habitats that house native wildlife native in the area. 

A compelling incentive to work together

Around the same time that the state began directing manpower and money towards restoring the river; a nonprofit tapped into the civic engagement mindset that many environmentalists were promoting. The Friends of the Rouge was founded in 1986, with the responsibility of raising awareness about the need to clean up the river.

Its first event came in its inaugural year, titled “Rouge Rescue,” and it was a hit.

“I think 2,500 people showed up across 18 different sites. All different counties had parks along the river. People did want to protect it, but they weren’t sure how to do it. But it was an expression of public interest,” said Jim Murray, the current Dearborn Public Work’s director who led the Friends of the Rouge for five years.

Murray said the Friends of the Rouge’s first event, which was accompanied by a $50,000 donation from the Ford Motor Co., created the mold for how the public could contribute to cleaning up the river.

“Think about it. It’s 1986 and you want to engage and educate people. You have all these problems and you’re all contributing to them,” Hartig said. “You had people pulling out all the shopping carts and tires and cleaning out log jams and picking out trash. Thousands of people.”

It was grassroots in its purest form: an organization run by the public, intended to help the public. At the same time, combined sewer overflow programs were getting traction in the state - which helped ease the burden of non-point source pollution.

“There was this fundamental shift in the country in how we do environmental protection of our water,” said Murray. 

The growing enthusiasm from the public was matched by emerging funds to help clean up the Rouge River. In 1991, Congress allocated $1 million to fund restoration. In 1992, they received $2.5 million. The third-year the funding was secured, restoration efforts received $65 million. 

That money, paired with a direction for how to use it and public encouragement to see a cleaner environment coalesced into a restoration movement that was endorsed by all.

“If you don’t clean up all 48 communities, you will not improve the quality of the Rouge one iota,” Hartig said. “You have this compelling incentive to work together. It was a mindset of ‘if we all are all part of it, we can do it.’”

Since 1992, more than a billion has been invested into the Rouge River cleanup. The Rouge River National Wet Weather Demonstration Project, which directed that funding ended in 2014. It helped build streambank stabilization projects, reducing flows and public education work. 

Filling the shoes of the program was the Alliance of Rouge Communities (ARC), which was established the same year.

“These were the broad shoulders the ARC was established on,” said Annette DeMaria, executive director of the ARC. “Taking it from there, the ARC today focuses on illicit discharge work, public education, water quality work and making a template for how to reduce runoff.”

Government and municipality officials may understand how stormwater runoff and combined sewer overflows influence the environment, but the general public may not be so tapped in. Which is why the ARC and Friends of the Rouge promoted public education, gradually incorporating more groups, moving beyond grassroots volunteers to using corporate sponsors and teachers in schools of those communities.

“People don’t understand those roads and catch basins just discharge into water. People don’t understand their actions can affect water quality,” DeMaria said. “We’re trying to make that connection between infrastructure and what it does for people.”

You need to be part of the solution

There are several markers one could use on a measuring stick that could help identify just how effective restoration efforts have been on the Rouge River. But the most notable marker came in 2013 when a DTE worker happened upon a number of fallen trees near the River Rouge Power Plant.

Evidence of a beaver, the same species that was declared virtually extinct from the area more than a hundred years ago, had returned to the habitat it once populated in the millions.

“When we first got reports of ‘I saw a beaver,’ I thought someone mistook it for a muskrat,” Patrella said. “When you start to see signs and trees going down and wild cameras, you know they have come back.”

Evidence of wildlife’s return to the river hasn’t always been so dramatic, however. Take the stonefly’s return to the river.

In 1998, researchers started looking for bugs in the watershed. Patrella said they didn’t know what they would find. Among initial findings, researchers found the stonefly in a cold water tributary that branches off of the Rouge River. Then things became more encouraging when they found the same insect on the river near 8 Mile years later. 

A few years after that, they found the stonefly hatching on the concrete-portion of the Rouge River channel. Extremely sensitive to its surrounding environment, the return of the insect meant the possibility of other species coming back as well. 

“There was this fundamental shift in the country in how we do environmental protection of our water.”

“We’ve been sampling for fish since 2012, and we found 54 native species, which is pretty good,” Patrella said. “Even some rare sensitive fish a couple years ago, when we found an endangered fish called the Pugnose Minnow - very rare in the entire river.”

Compare those with 1986 numbers, when only six kinds of fish were found and more than half were sick. In 2015, they found 13 species and 353 individual fish. Among more sensitive species is a more common discovery of game fish, like yellow perch, logperch and blackside darters. 

Dams have been removed to open up migratory patterns for fish. ARC has also utilized grant funding from the U.S. Forrest Service to plant 3,800 trees along the river.

“One of the things that really hits home to me is just to show how far we have come,” said Patrella.

However, as restoration efforts have evolved, so have the problems volunteers now face. Rather than capping static sources of pollution, Patrella and her team are tasked with rooting out invasive plants and animals that pose new threats to the river. Workers are also stabilizing banks along the river to combat erosion.

The EPA is also dredging up soil along the original channel of Zug Island - a $50 million remediation project to remove legacy pollutants from the river’s bed.

Another byproduct the region still struggles with is the smell. Fumes from factories release a rotten-egg stench that follows the river all the way down to the Detroit River. Runoff still carries in bacteria and E. coli shows up as well. Sewer pipes from wastewater treatment facilities that line the river may not be watertight - which persists as a homeowner issue. Health officials also insist against going in the water - as it's still contaminated and could be dangerous for those who immerse themselves.

“It’s a huge effort to clean up a whole watershed. It involves so many different entities that have to work together. The Rouge River has a history of working together,” Patrella said. “It still has a way to go, but it’s vastly improved. It gets to the quality of life. People choose to live here because of the green space and the beauty of the river.”

For those that have studied the river, they know much work remains for repairing the damage that was done over the last century. But they also understand the river’s capacity for returning to its optimal state. And with stakeholders more in tune with their environment, that mission has never been clearer. 

Matching that sentiment is a growing consensus that cleaning the river would require a collaborative effort between all bodies of government and the people that live under their jurisdictions. 

“These environmental issues are complex and not short term. You can’t solve them in one term of office for a politician. The government alone couldn’t do it,” Hartig said. “They need these committed people educating the next generation of people. We are part of the ecosystem and not separate from it. You need to be part of the solution.”

Jack Nissen is a web reporter with Fox 2 Detroit. You can reach him at (248) 552-5269 or at his email at Jack.Nissen@foxtv.com