These old photos reveal why we needed (and still need) the EPA.


It’s hard for people who weren’t around in 1960s and ’70s to remember what the world was like before the EPA.

There was a reason President Richard Nixon’s proposal to establish a federal agency to protect the environment enjoyed bipartisan support.

A mountain of oil drums near an Exxon refinery in Louisiana. All photos via Defiant, via the EPA and National Archives and Records Administration.

Before the Environmental Protection Agency, many industries used U.S. waterways as toxic waste dumps. It was so bad that the Great Lakes and the surrounding rivers frequently caught fire.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 forced industry to control the pollution it dumped into America’s water. But President Donald Trump’s budget proposal — which would cut one-fifth of the agency’s staff, eliminate entire programs, and trim $2 billion from its budget — could curtail this act.

In 1971, one of the first things the EPA did was hire a team of photojournalists to document the ongoing environmental devastation in America.

The project took six years, involved 100 photojournalists, and produced more than 80,000 images.

The Cuyahoga River Fire of 1952.

They called it “Documerica,” and in the past few years the National Archives has digitized some 15,000 images from the project. You can see them at its website or on Flickr. Some are simple pictures of life in the ’70s, but others depict a harrowing world.

A factory burning discarded batteries and belching poison into the air outside Houston.

Along the New Jersey Turnpike.

A landfill outside New York City.

It’s a world where industry has carte blanche to poison the environment and the people in the name of profit. A world where our rivers and lakes catch fire. A world of garbage, toxic waste, and ash.

The George Washington Bridge, barely visible through the smog.

A poisoned lake near Ogden, Utah.

When Trump says he wants to make America great again and refers to a fanciful time when the United States was somehow better, this is what he’s talking about. This is what America looks like without the EPA.

This is why we fight.

This story was first published at Defiant is reprinted here with permission.


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