This is what America looked like before the EPA cleaned it up

It wasn’t pretty.
horse in front of chemical company
The Atlas Chemical Company Belches Smoke across Pasture Land in Foreground. 06/1972 Marc St Gil / EPA

In 1970, Republican President Richard Nixon signed an executive order creating the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It was a time when pollution made many of our nation’s rivers and streams unsafe for fishing or swimming. Back then, New York City’s air pollution was so thick that you often couldn’t see the city’s iconic bridges. Forty-seven years later, there is serious talk of dismantling the agency, or at least slashing its size by two-thirds.

But what does America look like without the EPA?

From 1971 to 1977 the nascent agency, in an act of prescience, enlisted the services of freelance photographers to help us remember. These photographers captured images of America’s environmental problems before we’d cleaned them up. In 2011, the US National Archives digitized more than 15,000 pictures from the series “Documerica”. Here are some of the most compelling.

If you like these images, please read our series on the EPA past and present. It begins here.

Smog on river
Smog Hangs Over Louisville And Ohio River, September 1972 William Strode / EPA
burning barge
Burning Barge On The Ohio River, May 1972 William Strode / EPA
clear cut trees detroit lake dam
Detroit Lake the Dam 09/1973 David Falconer / EPA
smoking steamboat on ohio river
Paddlewheel Steamboats Seen From Banks Of Ohio River, May 1972 Willaim Strode / EPA
Smog over Louisville
Smog Lingers Over Louisville Skyline, September 1972 William Strode /EPA
Coke can in ohio river
Litter Left In The Ohio River, June 1972 William Strode / EPA
no deposit broken bottle
Broken Glass From “No-Deposit, Non-Returnable” Bottles Along the Washington Shore of the Columbia River in a Public Picnic Area. Such Bottles Are Illegal Across the River in the State of Oregon 04/1973 David Falconer / EPA
filtering trash out of the river
The Job Of Clearing Drift From The Potomac And Anacostia Rivers Is Done By The Army Corps Of Engineers, April 1973 John Neubauer / EPA
beach pollution sign
Warning of Polluted Water at Staten Island Beach Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in Background 06/1973 Arthur Tress / EPA
abandoned car in bay
Abandoned Car in Jamaica Bay 06/1973 Arthur Tress / EPA
sand covered car
Sand Covers Abandoned Car on Beach at Breezy Point South of Jamaica Bay 05/1973 Arthur Tress / EPA
filtering trash out of the river
The Job Of Clearing Drift From The Potomac And Anacostia Rivers Is Done By The Army Corps Of Engineers, April 1973 John Neubauer / EPA
Outflow Pipe 6 of the Oxford Paper Company Will at Rumford on the Androscoggin River 06/1973 Charles Steinhacker / EPA
woman holding jar of tainted water
Mary Workman Holds A Jar of Undrinkable Water That Comes from Her Well, and Has Filed A Damage Suit Against the Hanna Coal Company … 10/1973 Erik Calonius / EPA
smoke billows from paper mill
International Paper Company Mill at Jay on the Androscoggin River 06/1973 Charles Steinhacker / EPA
close up of smoke billowing
Mills of the Brown Paper Company in Berlin, on the Androscoggin River 06/1973 Charles Steinhacker / EPA
Oxford paper company aerial view
Oxford Paper Company 06/1973 Charles Steinhacker / EPA
smog views of George Washington Bridge
The George Washington Bridge in Heavy Smog. View toward the New Jersey Side of the Hudson River1973 Chester Higgins / EPA
power plant billowing smoke
The Pepco (Potomac Electric Power Company) Power Plant At The Anacostia River, April 1973 Dick Swanson / EPA
empty sign on gas tank
Gas Shortage 06/1973.jpg David Falconer / EPA
out of gas sign
“Out of Gas” Signs Have Cropped Up All over the Portland Area Since the Start of the Fuel Shortage 06/1973 David Falconer / EPA
Less Highway Lights
Posted Highway Sign Along Interstate #5 Explains Lack of Highway Lighting Is Due to Energy Conservation 11/1973 David Falconer / EPA
Restaurant closed energy crisis
Sign Posted in a Doorway Entrance to a Restaurant Explaining Shorter Hours Due to the Fall of 1973 Energy Crisis in Oregon. The Business Was Located Along Interstate #5 10/1973 David Falconer / EPA
Billboard Advising Passing Motorists of the Seriousness of the Energy Shortage in Oregon During the Fall of 1973. Taken on Interstate #5 09/1973 David Falconer / EPA
Emission Testing Sign
Closeup of a Sign at One of Several Service Stations That Advertise Tuneups to Pass Emission and Safety Tests…08/1975 Lyntha Scott Eiler / EPA
I'm Clean Sticker
Happy Young Woman with a Bumper Sticker Which Reports She Had Successfully Passed Testing at an Auto Emission Inspection Station in Downtown Cincinnati, Ohio…09/1975 Lyntha Scott Eller / EPA
Cleaning up Road Side
Cleaning Up the Roadside in Onset 05/1973 Ernst Halberstadt / EPA