President Nixon may not have been the best president America has had, but he at least did one thing right. In 1970, Nixon signed an executive order to create the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). From 1971 to 1977, the EPA hired freelance photographers to capture the damage pollution caused to the country and, into the late '70s, how the EPA helped to clear it up. In 2011, the US National Archives made over 15,000 digital copies from those original photos for the series “Documerica.”
This is the George Washington Bridge circa 1973. The view is from the New Jersey side of the Hudson. Back in the '70s, the smog was so thick you couldn’t see many of the skyscrapers the city was famous for.
Los Angeles is particularly susceptible to pollution because of its location. A pollution trap is created by the mountains surrounding the city and the temperature inversion. However, because of the EPA, the air quality has gotten much better.
The Clean Air Act was passed in 1963, but it was the EPA’s amendments to that act that really had an impact on air quality. The EPA set limits on air pollutants and emissions. It set limits on three emissions in particular for vehicles: carbon monoxide, unburnt hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides. These three pollutants, known as “criteria emissions,” were major factors in smog formation.
The above photo is of Cleveland enveloped in smog, July 1973.
We have toxic rivers to thank for the creation of the EPA, in particular, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River. In 1969, the river caught fire and made for a big story in Time magazine. But prior to that, the river had been documented catching fire thirteen times. The reaction gaged by this disaster is thought to have led to the EPA’s creation. The EPA then passed the Clean Water Act in 1972.
This is a photo of Mary Workman, a woman who filed a lawsuit against the Hanna Coal Company for making the water from her well undrinkable. This is due to the waste from the coal plant sinking into the soil and pulluting her water.
The photo was taken in 1973. While the Coal Company is to blame for Mary's water, in 1977, the EPA enforced drinking water standards for all public water suppliers.
Despite the EPA’s efforts to clean up the waters, there is still a lot of work to do. The EPA thinks half of the nation’s bodies of water (excluding oceans) are somehow “impaired.”
The above photo isn’t from the “Documerica” series, but it is the site of a horrible event. The vacant rectangle of land in the above photo was the site of a huge toxic waste dump on the American side of Niagara Falls known as the “Love Canal.” Between 1947 and 1952, the Hooker Electrochemical Company used the land to dump 22,000 tons of toxic waste. In 1953, it was sold the land to a school board for $1. By the '70s, people began to realize something was really wrong with the land. Barrels full of toxic waste began to surface, children and animals were getting burned and there was a significant increase in birth defects. The EPA then had to evacuate and relocate 950 families. Between 1983 and 2004, the EPA spent $400 million cleaning up the site.
Since the “Love Canal,” the EPA has cleaned up over 450 sites.
The above photo is of an illegal dumping ground off the New Jersey Turnpike in 1973. Since the EPA’s creation, several steps have been taken to regulate landfills and recycling became a huge initiative. The EPA also deals with disaster clean-ups, like Hurricane Katrina and Sandy.
There are reports that the Trump administration has some plans to make some serious cuts to the EPA. A recent report by the Washington Post says that the Trump administration plans to cut the EPA staff by one-fifth. There are also reports that Trump plans on cutting the EPA budget by 24 percent.
It also makes people worry that Trump picked Scott Pruitt, a known climate-change denier, to head the EPA. With all these changes happening to the agency with the new administration, could we perhaps be taking several steps back to the time of these frightening photos?