Vintage photos taken by the EPA reveal what America looked like before pollution was regulated

Chester Higgins/DocumericaAn oil slick surrounding the Statue of Liberty.
  • Before the Environmental Protection Agency started regulating pollution in the nation’s air, water, and land, things were dire. These photos show how bad it was.
  • We’ve made significant progress since then, but there’s still a lot of work to do to keep our environment and those who live in it healthy.
  • The Trump administration’s EPA aims to roll back a number of environmental protections, though Scott Pruitt resigned on July 5 amid ethics scandals.
  • The new acting administrator of the EPA, Andrew Wheeler, is likely to continue with a similar agenda.
  • Now that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has announced his retirement, many experts think a number of environmental regulations could get overturned.

As the story goes, the chemical-filled Cuyahoga River in Cleveland burst into flames on June 22, 1969, 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 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 how 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 digitised by the National Archives.

The EPA’s role since then has varied from administration to administration.

Trump’s former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt worked to roll back a number of rules that were previously put in place to protect air and water. Many reports suggested Pruitt’s primary aim was to eliminate most environmental protections and dismantle parts of the regulatory agency.

But on July 5, in the wake of a long list of scandals, Trump announced he’d accepted Pruitt’s resignation.

Pruitt had 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 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.

Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, was Pruitt’s deputy and is now acting administrator of the EPA, so it’s likely that he will pursue a similar agenda.

The resignation of Pruitt, along with the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, raises new questions about the future of environmental regulations in the US. Kennedy, who plans to finish his work on July 31, was the swing vote in a number of environmental cases, including the one that granted the EPA the ability to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. A new Trump nominee may be more likely to overturn key environmental protections, according to legal experts.

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.

Jack Corn/DocumericaDavid Shanklin, pictured here at age 19, lived in a coal-company town near Sunbright, West Virginia. Shanklin’s father was killed in the mines in 1954, and though Shanklin wanted to become a miner, his mother didn’t want him to.

Smog, seen here obscuring the George Washington Bridge in New York, was a far bigger problem.

Chester Higgins/Documerica

Smog was common, as this shot of Louisville and the Ohio River from 1972 shows.

William Strode/Documerica

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.

Marc St. Gil/Documerica

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.

Erik Calonius/Documerica

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.

Arthur Tress/Documerica

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.

Marc St. Gil/Documerica

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.

Charles O’Rear/Documerica

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.

Marc St. Gil/Documerica

Source: EPA


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.

Lyntha Scott Eiler/DocumericaA coal-mining operation in Arizona.

Source: Scientific American


Pollution in industrial cities like Cleveland, Ohio, was particularly severe.

Frank J. Aleksandrowicz/Documerica

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.

William Strode/Documerica

The agency helps regulate cleanups in particularly polluted sites. The Twin Towers are visible behind the trash heap in this image.

Gary Miller/Documerica

Trash and old tires littered the Baltimore Inner Harbour in 1973. The EPA regulates waste disposal now, including in coastal locations. EPA cleanups in the harbour over the years have targeted dangerous chemicals.

Jim Pickerell/Documerica

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.

Arthur Tress/Documerica

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.

John Neubauer/Documericad

The Army Corps of Engineers was set to work trying to clear drift and debris from the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers in 1973.

Dick Swanson/Documerica

Los Angeles has long been known for its smog issues. Here in 1972, it obscures the sun above a railroad near the Salton Sea.

Charles O’Rear/Documerica

Auto pollution across the country was far worse before the Clean Air Act was used to regulate pollutants and fuels.

Dick Swanson/DocumericaWalt Whitman Bridge crosses the Delaware River at South Philadelphia, leads to New Jersey Suburbs, August 1973.

Without regulation, more companies and manufacturers would be able to dump pollutants into waters and the air we breathe.

Chester Higgins/DocumericaAn oil slick surrounding the Statue of Liberty.

This post was originally published on October 9, 2017, and has been updated.

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