Vintage EPA photos reveal what US waterways looked like before pollution was regulated

Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesView of semi-submerged automobile wreckage lining the shore of acu rve of the Cuyahoga River (looking south), near Jaite, Ohio, 1968. A railroad bridge is visible in the background.

Just over 50 years ago, Ohio’s Cuyahoga river caught fire.

The disaster prompted a public outcry that in part led to the formation of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. The EPA was charged with regulating the country’s polluted air and waterways, among other environmental objectives.

Soon after its founding, the agency dispatched 100 photographers to capture the US’ environmental issues as part of a photo project called Documerica. The photographers took about 81,000 images, more than 20,000 of which were archived. At least 15,000 have been digitised by the National Archives, and the images now function as a kind of time capsule, revealing what states from California to New York looked like between 1971 and 1977.

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Many of the photos were taken before the implementation of rules meant to keep water and air free of contamination.

The images of polluted waterways are especially striking. The following Documerica photos reveal what US rivers, streams, and coastlines looked like before the EPA started regulating pollution.

The Cuyahoga river, which flows through Cleveland, was once one of the most polluted in the country, with nearly black water because of oil pollution.

Courtesy of Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections.Betty Klaric, an environmental reporter for the Cleveland Press, on a boat holding a wine glass of Cuyahoga River water.

The image above, as well as the following two, were taken before the Documerica photo project got underway.

Its banks were rimmed with abandoned cars in some areas.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesThree men take water samples on a curve of the Cuyahoga River where the shore is lined with semi-submerged automobile wreckage, near Jaite, Ohio, 1968.

Then for 20 minutes on June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga became a fiery inferno.

No one knows for sure what started the blaze, but it’s possible that sparks from a passing train lit the oil in the water on fire.

The EPA’s Clean Water Act now prohibits companies from contaminating waterways.

Charles Steinhacker/US National ArchivesAn outflow pipe at the Oxford Paper Company Mill on the Androscoggin River in Maine, June 1973.

But before the law was enacted in 1972, factories often released untreated wastewater into nearby waters.

David Falconer/National ArchivesAn industrial plant on the upper Columbia River in Washington state, May 1973.

Rivers that flowed through industrial areas, like the Androscoggin in Maine, wound up functioning as dumping grounds.

Charles Steinhacker/US National ArchivesThe Oxford Paper Company Mill as viewed from a bridge connecting the towns of Rumford and Mexico across the Androscoggin River in Maine in June 1973.

Liquid waste, called effluent, choked waterways across the country.

Charles Steinhacker/US National ArchivesEffluent from the International Paper Company Mill in Jay, Maine, flows sluggishly downstream in the Androscoggin River in June 1973.

The Anacostia river — which flows between Maryland and Washington DC — took on a brown colour due to sewage and other pollutants.

Dick Swanson/National ArchivesThe wake of a power boat on the Anacostia River is a dirty brown in April 1973.

In addition to industrial waste, oil spills also polluted many waterways. In October 1972, 285,000 gallons of crude oil flowed into the San Juan river in southeastern Utah.

David Hiser/National ArchivesAn EPA-supervised clean-up of an oil slick on the San Juan River in October 1972.

Even river off-shoots, like this stream outside Telluride, Colorado, were murky.

Boyd NortonA polluted stream near Telluride, Colorado, May 1972.

Sometimes waterways and lakes would turn a hazy green colour due to colonies of algae on the surface.

Marc St. Gil/National ArchivesPolluted water near a large manufacturing plant outside Lake Charles in Calcasieu parish, Louisiana, June 1972.

Algal blooms can wreak havoc on local ecosystems, killing flora and fauna.

Marc St. Gil/National ArchivesA polluted area on Mustang Island, south of Houston, Texas, in February 1972.

US territories like Puerto Rico also struggled with pollution in the years leading up to and following the EPA’s inception.

John Vachon/National ArchivesAn aerial view of polluted water in Puerto Rico, February 1970.

Puerto Rico’s beaches were strewn with plastic and garbage in the early 1970s.

John Vachon/National ArchivesA garbage-strewn Atlantic beach in Cataño, Puerto Rico, February 1973.

The practice of dumping waste into local rivers caused some water sources to so contaminated that they were unsafe for human consumption.

Charles Steinhacker/US National ArchivesUntreated waste flows into a clarifier at the International Paper Company Mill on the Androscoggin River in Maine, June 1973.

In some areas, the pollution was so bad that it prevented local residents from swimming in or drinking fresh water near their homes.

Charles Steinhacker/US National ArchivesA polluted area of the Androscoggin River near the border between Maine and New Hampshire, June 1973.

In its first year, the EPA referred 152 pollution cases — most of them water-related — to the Department of Justice for prosecution.

Charles O’Rear/National ArchivesWaste floating on Colorado River in Yuma County, Arizona.

Source: EPA Archive

In 1973, Ohio resident Mary Workman filed a lawsuit against the Hanna Coal company, accusing it of polluting her drinking water. She holds a jar of dark-coloured water from her well in this photo.

Erik Calonius/Documerica/US National ArchivesMary Workman, who filed a damage suit against the Hanna Coal Company, October 1973.

Urban areas like New York struggled with illegal garbage dumping in local waterways, in addition to industrial waste and oil pollution.

Arthur Tress/Documerica/US National ArchivesGarbage dumped in the marshes of Jamaica Bay, New York, 1973.

In the first six months of 1973, more than 300 oil spills from ships and tankers occurred in the Atlantic Ocean around the New York City area.

Chester Higgins/Documerica/US National ArchivesAn oil slick creeps up on the Statue of Liberty in 1973.

More than 800 oil spills happened throughout the larger mid-Atlantic region during the same time period, according to a 1973 Coast Guard survey.

New York City didn’t stop discarding sewage into the ocean until 1992.

Arthur Tress/Documerica/US National ArchivesAn abandoned car in Jamaica Bay, New York, June 1973.

Today, the EPA regulates pollution from landfills and auto salvage yards, but illegal dumping still happens.

Jim Pickerell/Documerica/US National ArchivesTrash and old tires litter the shore of the Baltimore Harbour, January 1973.

When President Richard Nixon proposed creating the EPA in 1970, he said: “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.”

Arthur Tress/National ArchiveA channel is choked with waste at the Municipal Incineration Plant at Gravesend Bay in New York, May 1973.

After the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire, the water remained polluted for decades. In this 1973 photo, the water’s discoloration is a result of sewage. But the EPA recently announced that people can finally safely eat fish caught on the river between Gorge Dam and Lake Erie.

Documerica/US National Archives

“We still think of air as free,” Nixon said in his 1970 State of the Union address. “But clean air is not free, and neither is clean water.”

Charles O’Rear/National ArchivesAn EPA technician samples water at Ash Springs, Nevada, May,1972.

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