How ‘beautiful’ was America really before EPA protections?


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A trip down memory lane doesn’t always leave you with that warm and fuzzy feeling. But hopefully this one will show you how far America has come, thanks in large part to one agency. In the late 1960s the state of the environment was undeniable. Sewage and chemicals polluted rivers. Smog smothered cities. And Americans were tired.  But a new era was about to begin.

In 1970, President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency. Under the direction of administrator William Ruckelshaus, the agency started on its mission to clean up America. But first it needed to get a feel for how big the job would be. So, the agency hired a small army of photographers to document America, and the Documerica Project was born.

Image Credit: Documerica Project /

Recording the environmental truth


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The project consists of more than 81,000 photos that now serve as a reminder of how far we’ve come.  “Before EPA was created, little was done to protect the air we breathe, the water we drink and the toxic chemicals that poison people and our environment,” said Vickie Patton, General Counsel for Environmental Defense Fund. “EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus’s 1972 decision to ban DDT in response to legal action by EDF was among the first of countless vital EPA actions to protect human health and the environment and improve the future for everyone.”

Here are a few examples of stunning transformations brought about by EPA regulations.

Image Credit: Максим Шмаков / istockphoto.

Cuyahoga River

Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River used to be one of the most polluted rivers in the U.S. It caught fire at least 13 times between 1868 and 1969.

Image Credit: Documerica Project /

Fire on the water, smog in the sky

It wasn’t just the water. Smog obscured the Cleveland skyline in this 1973 photo.

Image Credit: Documerica Project /

Los Angeles

Los Angeles was another smoggy city made much brighter by regulations that limit air pollution.

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Image Credit: Documerica Project /

Monterrey Bay, California

The waters of Monterey Bay are much cleaner than they were when this discharge pipe was photographed in 1972.

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Image Credit: Documerica Project /

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