Vintage EPA photos reveal what New York City looked like before the US regulated pollution

Smog obscures a view of the George Washington Bridge in New York City, May 1973.

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Smog obscures a view of the George Washington Bridge in New York City, May 1973.
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Chester Higgins/Documerica

New York City produces twice as much trash as any other mega-city on Earth, according to a recent study. The Environmental Protection Agency has described Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal as “one of the nation’s most extensively contaminated water bodies.” And air pollution, coming largely from transportation and construction, remains a threat to residents.

But before the EPA formed in 1970, pollution in NYC was even worse.

Soon after the EPA’s founding, the agency dispatched 100 photographers to capture America’s environmental issues in a photo project called Documerica. It shows what the US, from California to Ohio to New York, looked like from 1971 to 1977. Of the 81,000 images the photographers took, more than 20,000 photos were archived, and at least 15,000 have been digitized by the National Archives.

Many of the photos were taken before the US regulated things like water and air pollution.

The Trump administration has already moved toward rolling back a number of environmental regulations, including the Clean Water Rule – which prevents industries from dumping pollutants into waterways and wetlands – and the Clean Power Plan – the Obama administration’s biggest initiative to fight climate change by curbing emissions.

Progressives around the country also worry whether Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the Supreme Court will seal the fate of these environmental protections. The 81-year-old justice has been a crucial swing vote on many environmental issues for the past three decades.

On Thursday, Trump announced that EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has resigned, which could make the future of the agency even more unpredictable.

Many reports suggest that if the Trump administration dismantles more of the EPA, parts of the US could return to the state they were in before its regulations.

Take a look at a few New York City Documerica photos that were taken between 1973 and 1974.


Many Documerica photos show scenes of general life in New York City in the 1970s, but several also document environmental issues.

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Interior of a graffiti-marked subway, 1973.
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Erik Calonius/Documerica

In the first six months of 1973, more than 300 oil spills occurred in the New York City area. An oil slick creeps up on the Statue of Liberty in this 1973 photo.

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Chester Higgins/Documerica

More than 800 oil spills happened in the mid-Atlantic region during the same time period, according to a 1973 Coast Guard survey.

Source: The New York Times


Air pollution was also a huge issue in the city. As seen in this 1973 photo, smog obscures the George Washington Bridge.

Smog obscures a view of the George Washington Bridge in New York City, May 1973.

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Chester Higgins/Documerica

A historic smog event in 1966 — when a mass of warm air trapped pollutants from vehicles, factories, and chimneys — prompted New York City to update its local air quality laws in the late 1960s. Here is a 1973 photo of the Twin Towers:

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Will Blanche/Documerica

Source: The New York Times


EPA’s national Clean Air Act, which controls industrial pollution, was passed in 1970.

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Will Blanche/Documerica

In 1973, an abandoned car sat in Jamaica Bay …

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Arthur Tress/Documerica

… and another was buried in sand on the Breezy Point Beach. Today, the EPA regulates landfills and auto salvage yards, but illegal disposal still happens.

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Arthur Tress/Documerica

The 1973 photo below shows broken glass on the same beach.

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Arthur Tress/Documerica

Over the years, the EPA has spearheaded mass trash removals that focus on toxic chemicals. According to the agency, some New York City residents worried about pollution and ecological damage from the Jamaica Bay landfill in the early 1970s.

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Arthur Tress/Documerica

Source: The US National Archives


You can see the Twin Towers behind the trash pile in this 1973 photo of an illegal dumping area off the New Jersey turnpike.

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Gary Miller/Documerica

In Brooklyn, a Gravesend Bay landfill and incineration plant served as a playground for the boys pictured below. Another landfill in Staten Island, called Fresh Kills, was the largest in the world. By 2036, it will be reclaimed as a park.

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Arthur Tress/Documerica

The Gravesend Bay landfill still exists today. In 2013, The New York Daily News reported that a New York City Sanitation Department study found high concentrations of two toxins banned by the EPA.

Source: Curbed


Garbage was dumped in the marshes of Spring Creek on Jamaica Bay, as seen in the 1973 image below.

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Arthur Tress/Documerica

Source: The New York Times


The city didn’t stop discarding sewage into the ocean until 1992, due to an EPA mandate.

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A woman sits on a pier overlooking the Hudson River, 1973.
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Will Blanche/Documerica

Building construction has long contributed to air pollution in NYC, though the EPA now regulates emissions from construction equipment. This 1973 photo shows waste from a construction site on Manhattan’s lower west side:

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Will Blanche/Documerica

Source: The City of New York


Rusty oil cans piled up near a home in a Jamaica Bay neighborhood. Today, the EPA sets standards on waste produced by oil and gas industries, with the goal of limiting public health hazards.

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Arthur Tress/Documerica

Source: EPA


In 2010, the EPA estimated that the Clean Air Act prevented over 160,000 early deaths, 130,000 heart attacks, and millions of cases of respiratory illness.

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Commuters in lower Manhattan, 1973.
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Will Blanche/Documerica

Source: EPA


Without strict EPA regulation, New York City’s past could become its future.

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A couple on the Staten Island ferry, 1973.
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Will Blanche/Documerica