A mountain of oil drums near a Exxon refinery in Louisiana. All photos courtesy of the National Records and Archive Administration

This Is What America Looked Like Before the EPA

In 1971, the fledgling agency sent photographers across the country to document environmental devastation


Pres. Donald Trump wants to dismantle the EPA. It would be almost impossible to do so outright, so he did the next best thing. He picked former Oklahoma attorney general and notorious EPA-hater Scott Pruitt to head the Agency and put forth a budget plan that would gut the department.

Trump’s budget proposal — which still needs Congressional approval — would cut one fifth of the agency’s staff, eliminate entire programs and trim $2 billion from its budget. The point, Trump said, is to use the saved cash to bolster the military.

This is a terrible plan. The much maligned Environmental Protection Agency provides an incredible service to both America and the world — it makes sure the world outside our window never again looks like it did in the 1960s and ’70s.

It’s hard for people who weren’t there to remember what the world was like before the EPA. There was a reason Pres. Richard Nixon’s proposal to establish a federal agency to protect the environment enjoyed bi-partisan support. Back in 1970, humans had done a great job of fucking up nature.

The Cuyahoga River Fire of 1952.

In the bad-ol’-days before the EPA, America’s lakes and rivers used to just catch fire. Industrial industries tended to use the U.S. waterways as a toxic waste dump. It was so bad that the Great Lakes and the surrounding rivers frequently caught fire.

It hasn’t been a problem since the Clean Water Act of 1972, which forced industry to control the pollution it dumped into America’s water. A few days ago, Trump signed executive order designed to curtail this act. Can’t wait to see all the pretty river fires again.

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

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.

They called it Documerica, and in the past few years the National Archive has gotten around to digitizing 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 — such as those I’ve picked for this article — depict a harrowing world Trump wants to return to.

A world where industry has carte blanche to poison the environment and the people in the name of profit. A world where bald eagles fell from the sky, poisoned. A world where our rivers and lakes catch fire. A world of garbage, toxic waste and ash.

This was the New Jersey Turnpike before the EPA
Children playing near a cooling tower
Kids playing in a landfill outside New York City
The sign didn’t stop shit
The George Washington Bridge, barely visible through the smog
A duck drowned in poison sludge in a pond near New Jersey
A poison 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 Environmental Protection Agency. This is why we fight.

Stay defiant.

Writing is hard. Money is short. Support this reporter. Follow Defiant on Facebook and Twitter.