Here's What America Looked Like Before the EPA

When it was created, the new Agency sent photographers around the country to capture an America in environmental decline.
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A duck drowning in poison near New Jersey. U.S. National Archive photo.

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon deliver a decision in the case of West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency. At the moment, we don’t know what the decision will be but given the current makeup of the court, it’s possible it will kneecap the agency’s ability to regulate polluters and address climate change. To understand just how bad this could be, I thought it was worth remembering why the EPA was created and what America looked like before it set to work in 1970.


Richard Nixon created the agency with bi-partisan support in response to mounting environmental disasters. In the era before the EPA, rivers and lakes in America would sometimes just catch fire. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire at least a dozen times and workers at nearby factories who slipped in were automatically taken to the hospital.

The last time the river caught fire was in 1969, an event that caused $50,000 in damage to nearby bridges and facilitated the quick creation of the EPA.The fledgling organization helped pass the Clean Water Act soon after, which cleaned up America’s water.

In the early days of the Agency, it hired a team of photojournalists to travel the country and document its ongoing environmental decline. The project lasted six years and employed 100 photojournalists. The end result is 80,000 images the EPA called Documerica. Over the past few years, the National Archives has uploaded photos from the project on Flickr and its own website.

I first wrote about Documerica in 2017 when the Trump Whitehouse put a man who hated the EPA in charge of it and trimmed $2 billion from its budget. Five years later, Trump is gone but his legacy lives on. The composition of the Supreme Court has changed and the EPA has lost power to prevent the kind of world America’s were digested by in the 1960s and ‘70s. 

Here are some of the most striking images from that time.


The smog rolls over Manhattan. U.S. National Archives Photo.

Smog rolling on over Manhattan.


Raw sewage at Watergate. U.S. National Archives photo.

In this photo, raw sewage flows through the Potomac river near the Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C.


Discarded pesticide containers. U.S. National Archives photo.

Discarded pesticide canisters left in a field.


Baltimore Harbor. U.S. National Archives photo.

Baltimore harbor full of tires.


A smokestack near Tacoma. U.S. National Archives photo.

In this photo, children play in a yard in Ruston, Washington while a smokestack belches arsenic and lead into the atmosphere.


An abandoned car in Jamaica Bay. U.S. National Archive photos.

Cars were sometimes discarded near bodies of water. This one was found in Jamaica Bay.


A car in Sheepshead Bay. U.S. National Archives photo.

Another abandoned car in Sheepshead Bay.


U.S. National Archives photo.

A mountain of damaged oil drums near an Exxon refinery in Louisiana.


Oil pollution. U.S. National Archives photo.

Oil from a leak left to run through the soil.


A beach near Hilton Head Island. U.S. National Archives photo.

Garbage mounting near Hilton Head Island in South Carolina.


Dumping off the New Jersey Turnpike. U.S. National Archives photo.

Garbage overflowing in a dumping ground near the New Jersey Turnpike.