35 vintage photos taken by the EPA reveal what American cities looked like before pollution was regulated

Bill Wunsch / The Denver Post / GettySmog over Denver in 1974.

  • Before President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, water and air pollution weren’t federally regulated.
  • Between 1971 and 1977, the EPA enlisted 100 photographers to document the conditions of the country and the environment with “The Documerica Project.”
  • The result was 81,000 photos, often filled with smoke, smog, acid, oil, rubbish, and sewage. We’ve selected 35 of those photos to show what American cities used to look like.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Don’t let the soft, sepia tones fool you. The United States used to be dangerously polluted.

Before President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, the environment and its well-being was not a federal priority.

In the early 1970s, the EPA launched the “The Documerica Project,” which leveraged 100 freelance photographers to document what the US looked like. By 1974, there were of 81,000 photos. The National Archivesdigitised nearly 16,000 and made them available online.

Many of the photos were taken before water and air pollution were fully regulated. The Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, and the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972.

Baltimore, Birmingham, Cleveland, Delaware, Denver, Kansas, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco all feature here, in shots filled with smoke, smog, acid, oil, rubbish, and sewage.

None of the 35 photos are pretty (other than the film-photo haze), but it’s worth remembering what US cities used to be like before we cared what we put into the air, soil, and water.

In Baltimore, trash and tires cover the shore at Middle Branch beside the harbour in 1973. The EPA regulates waste now, and sets criteria for landfills. While the open dumping of waste is banned, it still happens.

Jim Pickerell / EPATrash and old tires on the Shore of Baltimore Harbour.

Source: EPA

Baltimore City did have some simple techniques to keep the harbour clean. Here, a screen has been placed across the water to trap trash. A heavy rain could break it, but it was effective when cleaned often.

Play GIFJim Pickerell / EPAJones Falls, near Baltimore Harbour.

In Birmingham, which truckers in the 1960s called “smoke city”, a boy throws a frisbee.

Play GIFLeRoy Woodson / EPANorth Birmingham was the most heavily polluted area in the city.

Source: Bham Now

A house in North Birmingham is barely visible in industrial smog coming from the North Birmingham Pipe Plant. It was the most polluted area of the city.

LeRoy Woodson / EPAIndustrial smog over North Birmingham.

In Cleveland, in 1973, billowing smoke casts a gloom over the Clark Avenue bridge. Because it was an industrial city, the pollution was severe.

Frank Aleksandrowicz / EPAClark Avenue Bridge in Cleveland in 1973.

Source: Ohio History Central

Cleveland’s inner city was also a dumping ground for trash.

Play GIFFrank Aleksandrowicz / EPAAn empty lot on Superior Avenue, Cleveland, was filled with trash.

In Delaware, the city incinerator billows out smoke over the river. In 2016, a report released by New York University said 41 people living in Delaware still die because of air pollution every year.

Play GIFDick Swanson / EPADelaware City’s incinerator on the river.

Source: Delaware Online

In Denver, murky light brown sewage is discharged by the Metro Sewage Treatment Plant into the South Platte River.

Play GIFBruce McAllister / EPASewage discharged into the South Platte River.

Here’s a billboard in Denver in the 1970s. The city was known for having a brown cloud of pollution. In the late 1980s, the air pollution got so bad, the city developed a visibility standard — it asked whether downtown workers could see mountains that were only 35 miles away.

Bill Gillette / EPAA billboard in Denver.

Source: The New York Times

In Kansas City’s harbour, on the Missouri River, a local EPA worker points out a dying fish. While the river been much cleaner since the Clean Water Act was passed, trash and industrial contaminants still end up in it.

Kenneth Paik / EPAA local EPA worker points out a dying fish in Kansas City.

Source: The Kansas City Star

In Los Angeles, the outline of the sun can be clearly seen because air pollution creates a buffer. In 1943, 30 years before this photo was taken, the smog was so bad, the city’s residents thought it was a gas attack.

Charles O’Rear/DocumericaLos Angeles sun above a railroad near the Salton Sea.

Source: California Sun

Los Angeles county monitored pollution on the roads, at least.

Play GIFGene Daniels / EPAAir pollution control department checking for violators.

In New Orleans, fumes spread over the streets, billowing out from Kaiser Aluminium Plant’s smoke stack.

Play GIFJohn Messina / EPAKaiser Aluminium Plant’s smokestack blows out fumes over New Orleans.

In an illegal dump in New Orleans, garbage turned to sludge when a lake overflowed into it. In the 1970s, the EPA found 66 pollutants in the city’s drinking water. And the city’s water is known for its oily taste.

Play GIFJohn Messina / EPANew Orleans, Lake Pontchartrain.

Source: Los Angeles Times

In Bayonne, New Jersey, raw and partially digested sewage can be seen darkening the water.

New York is one of the most photographed cities for “The Documerica Project.” Here, the dumping of trash ruins an otherwise good view of Manhattan and the Twin Towers in 1973.

Gary Miller / EPAIllegal Dumping Area off the New Jersey Turnpike.

In Jamaica Bay, New York, an abandoned car sits waterlogged in 1973.

Arthur Tress/Documerica TheAn abandoned car sits in Jamaica Bay in New York City in 1973.

Another car has sunk halfway into the beach at Breezy point, south of Jamaica Bay. The EPA now helps regulate how the city disposes of trash to prevent dumping in the Atlantic.

Arthur Tress / DocumericaA car dumped at Breezy Point, south of Jamaica Bay.

Source: EPA

Though it might not be clear, this is the George Washington Bridge going over the Hudson River, covered in thick smog. In 1965, a study by New York City Council found breathing New York’s air had the same effect as smoking two packets of cigarettes a day.

Chester Higgins / EPAThe George Washington Bridge over the Hudson River.

Source: The New York Times

Seen here is the Statute of Liberty surrounded by oil. It was the result of one of 300 oil spills in the first six months of 1973. Between April and June of that year, 487,000 gallons of oil were dispersed in the New York Harbour and its tributaries.

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

Source: The New York Times

It is estimated about 6 million gallons of coal were dumped into the New York Bight by the Edison Power Plant in Manhattan in the early 1970s.

Play GIFAlexander Hope / EPAEdison Power Plant in Manhattan.

Sources: National Archives,BOEM

Barges, filled with New York’s waste, are pulled down the East River to Staten Island Landfill. In the 1970s, New York produced 26,000 tons of solid-waste every day.

Play GIFGary Miller / EPATugs towing barges filled with New York’s waste.

Source: National Archives

Rubble is loaded into barges before being dumped offshore, on a debris dump site, in the New York Bight. There were different distances for dumping different substances.

Play GIFAlexander Hope / EPAConstruction rubble loaded onto a barge in the East River.

This is one of four New York City-owned vessels on its way to dump sludge 12 miles into the bight. In 1973, 5.8 million cubic yards of sludge was dumped. The sludge would settle on the bottom of the ocean, like mud, killing plants, and creating a dead sea.

Play GIFAlexander Hope / EPAOne of four New York City owned vessels dumping sledge into the Bight.

Sources: The New York Times, National Archives

Here, acid waste lightens the water. Acid waste was also dumped in the New York Bight, 15 miles off-shore. It made up 90% of industrial waste dumped in the area. In 1974, more than 3 million tons were dumped in the Bight.

Play GIFAlexander Hope / EPAAcid waste in the New York Bight.

Source: National Archives

And while roads in Manhattan, like 108th Street and Lexington Avenue, might have piles of trash …

Play GIFGary Miller / EPAEmpty lot strewn with trash.

… it was worse in the Bronx. Here, the Bronx’s Co-Op City housing development is beside a landfill that was still being used, even though it had exceeded its dumping capacity. If you look closely you can see scavenger birds flying over the trash.

Play GIFGary Miller / EPAA landfill beside the Bronx, New York.

In Philadelphia, the sun is setting, but because of the smog it’s hard to tell. In 2018, a study found the city was becoming more polluted between 2014 and 2016, after several years of decreasing pollution.

Play GIFDick Swanson / EPAPhiladelphia at sunset.

Source: Philadelphia magazine

In Pittsburgh, which was once called “Hell with the lid off,” thick smoke creates a haze over the city.

Play GIFJohn Alexandrowicz / EPASmoke over Pittsburgh.

Source: The Allegheny Front

A junkyard looms in front of the Monongahela River, which runs through Pittsburgh. According to Mayor Tom Murphy in 2001, the biggest complaint he heard about the city was that it was too dirty.

Play GIFJohn Alexandrowicz / EPAA junkyard in front of the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh.

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Near Pittsburgh, oil-coated trees on the shore of the Ohio River show the damage done by spills and industry.

John Alexandrowicz / EPAOil along the shore of the Ohio River, near Pittsburgh.

In San Francisco Bay, the Leslie salt ponds gleam at sunset. The ponds were built to extract salt from the bay water. In 2019, the EPA ruled the land, owned by Cargill Salt, was not bound by the Clean Water Act. The photographer behind this photo said the “water stinks.”

Play GIFBelinda Rain / EPALeslie Salt Ponds in San Francisco.

Sources: KALW, Mercury News

In San Francisco, industrial black smoke billows out of a stack. During the 1970s, the biggest problem for the city was ozone pollution, which mainly comes from cars, industrial plants, power plants, and refineries.

Play GIFBelinda Rain / EPAIndustry in the San Francisco Bay.

Source: China Dialogue, EPA

Here is one of the factories that polluted San Francisco.

Play GIFBelinda Rain / EPAConcentration of industry in San Francisco.

In Washington D.C., raw sewage flows out into the Potomac river. In 1970, a hot summer resulted in a “stomach-turning” smell coming from the Potomac, due to the mixing of sewage and algae. The pollution was blamed on a “hundred years of under-estimates, bad decisions, and outright mistakes,” a director of the Federal Water Quality Administration told The New York Times. His description can be applied to a lot of the US before the EPA.

John Neubauer / EPARaw sewage flows through the Georgetown Gap, in 1973.

Source: The New York Times

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