Sometimes an apparently isolated incident has far-reaching repercussions, initiating changes that last longer than anyone could have imagined at the time. The conditions leading up to it might have existed for a long time, but it suddenly captures attention in a way nothing has before.
One such event happened in the summer of 1967, when the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal caught on fire in the Gulf of Tonkin. A missile carried by one of the aircraft onboard accidentally fired, striking another plane and rupturing its fuel tank; flaming jet fuel quickly spread among the other planes, igniting more fuel tanks and causing more weapons to explode. The resulting inferno killed 134 people, injured another 161, and caused millions of dollars of damage to the ship.
In response, the Navy began its so-called “insensitive munitions” program to prevent accidental detonations and chain reactions like this one. Ever since, newly developed ordnance is put through a battery of tests, involving heating it, freezing it, exposing it to salt fog and other extreme weather conditions, dropping it—both in its protective packaging and unprotected—from a great height onto a hard surface, and otherwise exposing it to abuses it might encounter in transport or in combat that could cause it to explode before it’s supposed to. Only once it passes these tests is it allowed to be mass-produced and deployed in battle.
Similarly, as Barbara Hesselgrave notes in the article “River Rebound,” the now-famous fire on the Cuyahoga River in June 1969 was not the first; the river was so polluted that it had been periodically catching fire for nearly a century. But the 1969 blaze was featured in Time magazine. As it happened, it wasn’t even the biggest story in the issue—that was the incident at Chappaquiddick—but the issue of the magazine was a widely read one, and whether they intended to or not, readers also saw the piece on polluted rivers in the magazine’s environmental section.
The 1969 river fire grew in the public’s imagination and eventually caused such an outcry that it’s been cited ever since as one of the pivotal events of the environmental movement—along with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the then-largest-ever oil spill in the Santa Barbara Channel in 1969, and a handful of others—that eventually led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Water Act.
Fifty years on, here we are, many of us with careers that have been dedicated to upholding that Act in one way or another. This June marks more than just the anniversary of the fire; it’s a chance to look at how far our waterways have come since the time industries routinely disposed of waste in them and to observe the restored habitats and swimmable, fishable waters and desirable waterfront real estate that have resulted. Our article covers some of the well-deserved celebrations that are taking place this month—as well as the conditions that led to the problems in the first place and the herculean restoration efforts.
What do you think people will look back on 50 years from now as the decisive events that shaped environmental policy? Send an email to email@example.com.