- This Earth Day, we take a look back at how bad things used to be.
- Before the Environmental Protection Agency started regulating what we polluted into the nation’s air, water, and land, things were dire. These photos show how bad it was.
- Luckily, we’ve made immeasurable progress since then. But there’s still a lot of work to do.
As the story goes, on June 22, 1969, the chemical-filled Cuyahoga River in Cleveland burst into flames, possibly ignited by a spark from a passing train.
That had happened at least dozen times before on the Cuyahoga. Additional fires were known to blaze up on rivers in Detroit, Baltimore, Buffalo, and in other cities.
River fires were far from the only environmental disasters in the US at the time. A spill from an offshore oil rig in California coated the coast in oil and pollutants. Smog and car exhaust choked cities around the country.
In the late 60s, Americans were growing more aware of the fact that unregulated pollution and chemical use were endangering the country and the people in it. People were ready for a change.
In his 1970 State of the Union address, President Richard Nixon said: “We still think of air as free. But clean air is not free, and neither is clean water. The price tag on pollution control is high. Through our years of past carelessness we incurred a debt to nature, and now that debt is being called.”
Nixon followed that up with a list of requests to Congress and later that year announced the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA.
Soon after it was founded, the EPA began a photo project called Documerica that captured more than 81,000 images showing what the US looked like from 1971 to 1977. More than 20,000 photos were archived, and at least 15,000 have been digitized by the National Archives.
The EPA’s role since then has varied from administration to administration. Right now, administrator Scott Pruitt is working to roll back a number of rules that were previously put in place to protect air and water. Pruitt has announced plans to kill the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s main initiative to fight climate change by lowering emissions.
Under Pruitt, the EPA has also reversed a ban on a pesticide that can harm children’s brains and moved to rescind the Clean Water Rule, which clarified the Clean Water Act to prohibit industries from dumping pollutants into streams and wetlands.
Many reports suggest that Pruitt’s primary aim is to eliminate most environmental protections and dismantle parts of the regulatory agency.
But as a reminder of what the US looked like before many of the EPA’s policies were in place, here’s a selection of the Documerica photos from the 1970s.
Many of these photos show life in America at the time, but several also document concerning environmental issues.
Smog, seen here obscuring the George Washington Bridge in New York, was a far bigger problem.
Smog was common, as this shot of Louisville and the Ohio River from 1972 shows.
Factories burned discarded automobile batteries in the 1970s, releasing pollutants into the air. Current regulations require the batteries to be recycled without contaminating the surrounding area, though some are exported.
Mary Workman of Steubenville, Ohio, holds a jar of undrinkable water from her well in this photo. She filed a lawsuit against a coal company, accusing it of polluting her water. The EPA now uses the Clean Water Act to prevent companies from contaminating drinking water.
An abandoned car sits in Jamaica Bay in New York City in 1973. Landfills and auto salvage yards fall under the EPA’s regulations now, though improper disposal still occurs.
The Atlas Chemical Company belches smoke across pasture land in Marshall, Texas, in this image. A local farmer told the photographer that the soot and chemicals had killed several of his cows.
EPA officials used briefcase-size monitors to test radiation levels. This image shows them testing the monitors in a Las Vegas lab before sending them out to be used.
Air pollution that can cause respiratory illness and other health problems was far less regulated before the EPA was founded. The EPA estimated that the Clean Air Act, which regulates pollution from industries, prevented more than 160,000 early deaths, 130,000 heart attacks, and millions of cases of respiratory illness in 2010 alone.
Coal-mining companies were bigger polluters in the 1970s as well. President Donald Trump has pledged an industry resurgence and recently nominated a coal lobbyist to be Pruitt’s second-in-command at the EPA.
Source: Scientific American
Pollution in industrial cities like Cleveland, Ohio, was particularly severe.
This photo shows a burning barge on the Ohio River in May 1972. A fire on the Cuyahoga River in 1969 (the 13th time that river had caught fire) helped to inspire the creation of the EPA.
The agency helps regulate cleanups in particularly polluted sites. The Twin Towers are visible behind the trash heap in this image.
Trash and old tires littered the Baltimore Inner Harbor in 1973. The EPA regulates waste disposal now, including in coastal locations. EPA cleanups in the harbor over the years have targeted dangerous chemicals.
All kinds of trash used to be dumped outside New York City, like this car at Breezy Point, south of Jamaica Bay. The EPA helped institute regulations for how the city disposed of trash to prevent dumping in the Atlantic.
Raw sewage flowed into the Potomac through the Georgetown Gap, pictured here in 1973 with the Watergate Complex visible in the background. The Clean Water Act now regulates pollutant discharge into bodies of water.
The Army Corps of Engineers was set to work trying to clear drift and debris from the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers in 1973.
Los Angeles has long been known for its smog issues. Here in 1972, it obscures the sun above a railroad near the Salton Sea.
Auto pollution across the country was far worse before the Clean Air Act was used to regulate pollutants and fuels.
Without regulation, more companies and manufacturers would be able to dump pollutants into waters and the air we breathe.
This post was originally published on October 9, 2017, and has been updated.