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.
Smog rolling on over Manhattan.
In this photo, raw sewage flows through the Potomac river near the Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C.
Discarded pesticide canisters left in a field.
Baltimore harbor full of tires.
In this photo, children play in a yard in Ruston, Washington while a smokestack belches arsenic and lead into the atmosphere.
Cars were sometimes discarded near bodies of water. This one was found in Jamaica Bay.
Another abandoned car in Sheepshead Bay.
A mountain of damaged oil drums near an Exxon refinery in Louisiana.
Oil from a leak left to run through the soil.
Garbage mounting near Hilton Head Island in South Carolina.
Garbage overflowing in a dumping ground near the New Jersey Turnpike.