Environment

This is what America looked like before the EPA cleaned it up

By Kendra Pierre-Louis - March 20, 2019

In 1970, Republican President Richard Nixon signed an executive order creating the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It was a time when pollution made many of our nation’s rivers and streams unsafe for fishing or swimming. Back then, New York City’s air pollution was so thick that you often couldn’t see the city’s iconic bridges. Forty-seven years later, there is serious talk of dismantling the agency, or at least slashing its size by two-thirds.

But what does America look like without the EPA?

From 1971 to 1977 the nascent agency, in an act of prescience, enlisted the services of freelance photographers to help us remember. These photographers captured images of America’s environmental problems before we’d cleaned them up. In 2011, the US National Archives digitized more than 15,000 pictures from the series “Documerica”. Here are some of the most compelling.

If you like these images, please read our series on the EPA past and present. It begins here.

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The Atlas Chemical Company Belches Smoke across Pasture Land in Foreground. 06/1972

Marc St Gil / EPA

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Smog Hangs Over Louisville And Ohio River, September 1972

William Strode / EPA

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Burning Barge On The Ohio River, May 1972

William Strode / EPA

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Detroit Lake the Dam 09/1973

David Falconer / EPA

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Paddlewheel Steamboats Seen From Banks Of Ohio River, May 1972

Willaim Strode / EPA

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Smog Lingers Over Louisville Skyline, September 1972

William Strode /EPA

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Litter Left In The Ohio River, June 1972

William Strode / EPA

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Broken Glass From "No-Deposit, Non-Returnable" Bottles Along the Washington Shore of the Columbia River in a Public Picnic Area. Such Bottles Are Illegal Across the River in the State of Oregon 04/1973

David Falconer / EPA

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The Job Of Clearing Drift From The Potomac And Anacostia Rivers Is Done By The Army Corps Of Engineers, April 1973

John Neubauer / EPA

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Warning of Polluted Water at Staten Island Beach Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in Background 06/1973

Arthur Tress / EPA

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Abandoned Car in Jamaica Bay 06/1973

Arthur Tress / EPA

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Sand Covers Abandoned Car on Beach at Breezy Point South of Jamaica Bay 05/1973

Arthur Tress / EPA

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The Job Of Clearing Drift From The Potomac And Anacostia Rivers Is Done By The Army Corps Of Engineers, April 1973

John Neubauer / EPA

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Outflow Pipe 6 of the Oxford Paper Company Will at Rumford on the Androscoggin River 06/1973

Charles Steinhacker / EPA

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Mary Workman Holds A Jar of Undrinkable Water That Comes from Her Well, and Has Filed A Damage Suit Against the Hanna Coal Company ... 10/1973

Erik Calonius / EPA

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International Paper Company Mill at Jay on the Androscoggin River 06/1973

Charles Steinhacker / EPA

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Mills of the Brown Paper Company in Berlin, on the Androscoggin River 06/1973

Charles Steinhacker / EPA

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Oxford Paper Company 06/1973

Charles Steinhacker / EPA

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The George Washington Bridge in Heavy Smog. View toward the New Jersey Side of the Hudson River1973

Chester Higgins / EPA

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The Pepco (Potomac Electric Power Company) Power Plant At The Anacostia River, April 1973

Dick Swanson / EPA

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Gas Shortage 06/1973.jpg

David Falconer / EPA

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"Out of Gas" Signs Have Cropped Up All over the Portland Area Since the Start of the Fuel Shortage 06/1973

David Falconer / EPA

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Posted Highway Sign Along Interstate #5 Explains Lack of Highway Lighting Is Due to Energy Conservation 11/1973

David Falconer / EPA

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Sign Posted in a Doorway Entrance to a Restaurant Explaining Shorter Hours Due to the Fall of 1973 Energy Crisis in Oregon. The Business Was Located Along Interstate #5 10/1973

David Falconer / EPA

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Billboard Advising Passing Motorists of the Seriousness of the Energy Shortage in Oregon During the Fall of 1973. Taken on Interstate #5 09/1973

David Falconer / EPA

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Closeup of a Sign at One of Several Service Stations That Advertise Tuneups to Pass Emission and Safety Tests...08/1975

Lyntha Scott Eiler / EPA

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Happy Young Woman with a Bumper Sticker Which Reports She Had Successfully Passed Testing at an Auto Emission Inspection Station in Downtown Cincinnati, Ohio...09/1975

Lyntha Scott Eller / EPA

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Cleaning Up the Roadside in Onset 05/1973

Ernst Halberstadt / EPA