Before the Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970, environmental disasters were the norm. Rivers regularly caught on fire, major cities were blanketed in a choking smog, and oil clogged the nation's waterways.
The George Washington Bridge in heavy smog, May 1973. | (Documeria/Chester Higgins, The U.S. National Archives via Flickr)
While the regularity of such catastrophes numbed many Americans into acceptance, several significant events in the 1960s began to shake the public out of its stupor.
In 1962 marine biologist and author Rachel Carson published her quietly shocking book Silent Spring, a compendium of her six-year analysis of the myriad ways man was indiscriminately poisoning the air, water, and soil. It became an instant bestseller.
On Jan. 28, 1969, an oil rig off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, exploded, sending three million gallons of crude oil into the ocean. Newspaper photos and televised reports of blackened beaches, oil-stained water, and thousands of tar-covered birds, fish, and marine mammals haunted the public.
Just six months later, three Americans landed on the moon, offering the Earth-bound their first glimpse at the delicate blue marble they called home. By the end of the decade, the drumbeat of environmental activism was deafening.
Opposition to land stripping in southeastern Ohio, 1973. | (The U.S. National Archives, via Flickr)
Grassroots environmental groups, with the help of Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.), organized the first Earth Day — a national, and now global, demonstration in support of environmental reform. The presence of 20 million people marching for the Earth's protection helped spur the government to action. On Dec. 2, 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was established under President Richard Nixon.
"Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions," the Republican said in his 1970 State of the Union address. "It has become a common cause of all the people of this country."
Just a year later, the EPA hired about 70 freelance photographers to capture America's environmental issues. The resulting six-year project, Documerica, collected 22,000 images of the people, animals, waterways, landscapes, big cities, and small towns that comprised early 1970s America.
While the vast scope of imagery acts as a visual time capsule of the era, the remarkably stark photos of the devastating effects of pollution — smog-choked skylines, red and bubbling waters, and literal landscapes of trash — offer a blunt baseline of what the environment looks like without regulatory policy.
In the decade that followed Documerica, the EPA would set such major environmental milestones as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Ocean Dumping Act. It would also ban widely used pesticides like DDT, test vehicles for fuel economy, and cut aid to polluters. Nearly four decades after its inception, the EPA has given younger generations the luxury of forgetting what it was like to live in such a highly contaminated world.
Below, refresh your memory and step into our polluted past to see what America looked like before the EPA.
Children play in a yard in Ruston, Washington, in August 1972, as the Tacoma Smelter Stack showers the area with arsenic and lead residue. In the early 1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency designated the Tacoma Asarco company property a Superfund cleanup site, demolishing the most contaminated buildings as well as the 562-foot smokestack. | (Documerica/Gene Daniels, The U.S. National Archives, via Flickr)
Trash and old tires litter the shore of the Baltimore Harbor, January 1973. | (Documerica/Jim Pickerell, The U.S. National Archives, via Flickr)
Mary Workman holds a jar of undrinkable well water, reportedly contaminated by nearby Hanna Coal Company, in Cleveland, Ohio. | (Documerica/Erik Calonius, The U.S. National Archives, via Flickr)
Cleveland, Ohio, July, 1973. | (Documerica/Frank J. Aleksandrowicz, The U.S. National Archives, via Flickr)
Illegal dumping area off of the New Jersey Turnpike, March 1973. | (Gary Miller/Documerica, The U.S. National Archives, via Flickr)
Oil derrick in a cemetery in Kilgore, Texas, June 1972. | (Documerica/Marc St. Gil, The U.S. National Archives, via Flickr)
Burning discarded automobile batteries in Houston, June 1972. | (Documerica/Marc St. Gil, The U.S. National Archives, via Flickr)
Swimming in polluted Lake Charles — Olin-Mathieson plant in the background — June 1972. | (Documerica/Marc St. Gil, The U.S. National Archives, via Flickr)
A coal tipple, Ohio, October 1973. | (Documerica/Erik Calonius, The U.S. National Archives, via Flickr)
A log boom in Monument Valley, Utah, that was the site of a massive oil spill in the San Juan River, October 1972. | (Documerica/David Hiser, The U.S. National Archives, via Flickr)
Neighborhood kids play around a municipal incineration and landfill dump in Gravesend Bay, New York, May 1973. | (Documerica/Arthur Tress, The U.S. National Archives, via Flickr)
Steam from a chemical plant in Corpus Christi, Texas, obscures the shoreline, November 1972. | (Documerica/Marc St. Gil, The U.S. National Archives, via Flickr)
Peabody coal company in northeastern Arizona, May 1972. | (Documerica/Lyntha Scott Eiler, The U.S. National Archives, via Flickr)
A sign warning against the health hazards of the Potomac River in Virginia, August 1972. | (Documerica/Erik Calonius, The U.S. National Archives, via Flickr)
Farmers fertilize a field in Blythe, California, May 1972. | (Documerica/Charles O'Rear, The U.S. National Archives, via Flickr)
Sunbathers at Huntington Beach, California, have a view of an offshore oil platform, May 1975. | (Documerica/Charles O'Rear, The U.S. National Archives, via Flickr)
The Atlas Chemical Company belches smoke across a pasture in Marshall, Texas, June 1972. | (Documerica/Marc St. Gil, The U.S. National Archives, via Flickr)
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