Bill Wunsch / The Denver Post / Getty
- 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.
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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 Archives digitized 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 harbor 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 / EPA
Baltimore City did have some simple techniques to keep the harbor 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.
Jim Pickerell / EPA
In Birmingham, which truckers in the 1960s called "smoke city", a boy throws a frisbee.
LeRoy Woodson / EPA
Source: Bham Now
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