35 vintage photos taken by the EPA reveal what American cities looked like before pollution was regulated

Smog over Denver in 1974.

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Smog over Denver in 1974.
source
Bill Wunsch / The Denver Post / Getty

  • Before President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, water and air pollution weren’t federally regulated.
  • Between 1971 and 1977, the EPA enlisted 100 photographers to document the conditions of the country and the environment with “The Documerica Project.”
  • The result was 81,000 photos, often filled with smoke, smog, acid, oil, rubbish, and sewage. We’ve selected 35 of those photos to show what American cities used to look like.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Don’t let the soft, sepia tones fool you. The United States used to be dangerously polluted.

Before President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, the environment and its well-being was not a federal priority.

In the early 1970s, the EPA launched the “The Documerica Project,” which leveraged 100 freelance photographers to document what the US looked like. By 1974, there were of 81,000 photos. The National Archives digitized nearly 16,000 and made them available online.

Many of the photos were taken before water and air pollution were fully regulated. The Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, and the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972.

Baltimore, Birmingham, Cleveland, Delaware, Denver, Kansas, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco all feature here, in shots filled with smoke, smog, acid, oil, rubbish, and sewage.

None of the 35 photos are pretty (other than the film-photo haze), but it’s worth remembering what US cities used to be like before we cared what we put into the air, soil, and water.


In Baltimore, trash and tires cover the shore at Middle Branch beside the harbor in 1973. The EPA regulates waste now, and sets criteria for landfills. While the open dumping of waste is banned, it still happens.

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Trash and old tires on the Shore of Baltimore Harbor.
source
Jim Pickerell / EPA

Source: EPA


Baltimore City did have some simple techniques to keep the harbor clean. Here, a screen has been placed across the water to trap trash. A heavy rain could break it, but it was effective when cleaned often.

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Jones Falls, near Baltimore Harbor.
source
Jim Pickerell / EPA

In Birmingham, which truckers in the 1960s called “smoke city”, a boy throws a frisbee.

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North Birmingham was the most heavily polluted area in the city.
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LeRoy Woodson / EPA

Source: Bham Now


A house in North Birmingham is barely visible in industrial smog coming from the North Birmingham Pipe Plant. It was the most polluted area of the city.

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Industrial smog over North Birmingham.
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LeRoy Woodson / EPA

In Cleveland, in 1973, billowing smoke casts a gloom over the Clark Avenue bridge. Because it was an industrial city, the pollution was severe.

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Clark Avenue Bridge in Cleveland in 1973.
source
Frank Aleksandrowicz / EPA

Source: Ohio History Central


Cleveland’s inner city was also a dumping ground for trash.

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An empty lot on Superior Avenue, Cleveland, was filled with trash.
source
Frank Aleksandrowicz / EPA

In Delaware, the city incinerator billows out smoke over the river. In 2016, a report released by New York University said 41 people living in Delaware still die because of air pollution every year.

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Delaware City’s incinerator on the river.
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Dick Swanson / EPA

Source: Delaware Online


In Denver, murky light brown sewage is discharged by the Metro Sewage Treatment Plant into the South Platte River.

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Sewage discharged into the South Platte River.
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Bruce McAllister / EPA

Here’s a billboard in Denver in the 1970s. The city was known for having a brown cloud of pollution. In the late 1980s, the air pollution got so bad, the city developed a visibility standard — it asked whether downtown workers could see mountains that were only 35 miles away.

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A billboard in Denver.
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Bill Gillette / EPA

Source: The New York Times


In Kansas City’s harbor, on the Missouri River, a local EPA worker points out a dying fish. While the river been much cleaner since the Clean Water Act was passed, trash and industrial contaminants still end up in it.

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A local EPA worker points out a dying fish in Kansas City.
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Kenneth Paik / EPA

Source: The Kansas City Star


In Los Angeles, the outline of the sun can be clearly seen because air pollution creates a buffer. In 1943, 30 years before this photo was taken, the smog was so bad, the city’s residents thought it was a gas attack.

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Los Angeles sun above a railroad near the Salton Sea.
source
Charles O’Rear/Documerica

Source: California Sun


Los Angeles county monitored pollution on the roads, at least.

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Air pollution control department checking for violators.
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Gene Daniels / EPA

In New Orleans, fumes spread over the streets, billowing out from Kaiser Aluminum Plant’s smoke stack.

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Kaiser Aluminum Plant’s smokestack blows out fumes over New Orleans.
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John Messina / EPA

In an illegal dump in New Orleans, garbage turned to sludge when a lake overflowed into it. In the 1970s, the EPA found 66 pollutants in the city’s drinking water. And the city’s water is known for its oily taste.

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New Orleans, Lake Pontchartrain.
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John Messina / EPA

Source: Los Angeles Times


In Bayonne, New Jersey, raw and partially digested sewage can be seen darkening the water.

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Sewage in Bayonne.
source
Alexander Hope / EPA

New York is one of the most photographed cities for “The Documerica Project.” Here, the dumping of trash ruins an otherwise good view of Manhattan and the Twin Towers in 1973.

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Illegal Dumping Area off the New Jersey Turnpike.
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Gary Miller / EPA

In Jamaica Bay, New York, an abandoned car sits waterlogged in 1973.

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An abandoned car sits in Jamaica Bay in New York City in 1973.
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Arthur Tress/Documerica The

Another car has sunk halfway into the beach at Breezy point, south of Jamaica Bay. The EPA now helps regulate how the city disposes of trash to prevent dumping in the Atlantic.

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A car dumped at Breezy Point, south of Jamaica Bay.
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Arthur Tress / Documerica

Source: EPA


Though it might not be clear, this is the George Washington Bridge going over the Hudson River, covered in thick smog. In 1965, a study by New York City Council found breathing New York’s air had the same effect as smoking two packets of cigarettes a day.

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The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson River.
source
Chester Higgins / EPA

Source: The New York Times


Seen here is the Statute of Liberty surrounded by oil. It was the result of one of 300 oil spills in the first six months of 1973. Between April and June of that year, 487,000 gallons of oil were dispersed in the New York Harbor and its tributaries.

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An oil slick surrounding the Statue of Liberty.
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Chester Higgins / Documerica

Source: The New York Times


It is estimated about 6 million gallons of coal were dumped into the New York Bight by the Edison Power Plant in Manhattan in the early 1970s.

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Edison Power Plant in Manhattan.
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Alexander Hope / EPA

Sources: National Archives, BOEM


Barges, filled with New York’s waste, are pulled down the East River to Staten Island Landfill. In the 1970s, New York produced 26,000 tons of solid-waste every day.

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Tugs towing barges filled with New York’s waste.
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Gary Miller / EPA

Source: National Archives


Rubble is loaded into barges before being dumped offshore, on a debris dump site, in the New York Bight. There were different distances for dumping different substances.

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Construction rubble loaded onto a barge in the East River.
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Alexander Hope / EPA

This is one of four New York City-owned vessels on its way to dump sludge 12 miles into the bight. In 1973, 5.8 million cubic yards of sludge was dumped. The sludge would settle on the bottom of the ocean, like mud, killing plants, and creating a dead sea.

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One of four New York City owned vessels dumping sledge into the Bight.
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Alexander Hope / EPA

Sources: The New York Times, National Archives


Here, acid waste lightens the water. Acid waste was also dumped in the New York Bight, 15 miles off-shore. It made up 90% of industrial waste dumped in the area. In 1974, more than 3 million tons were dumped in the Bight.

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Acid waste in the New York Bight.
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Alexander Hope / EPA

Source: National Archives


And while roads in Manhattan, like 108th Street and Lexington Avenue, might have piles of trash …

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Empty lot strewn with trash.
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Gary Miller / EPA

… it was worse in the Bronx. Here, the Bronx’s Co-Op City housing development is beside a landfill that was still being used, even though it had exceeded its dumping capacity. If you look closely you can see scavenger birds flying over the trash.

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A landfill beside the Bronx, New York.
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Gary Miller / EPA

In Philadelphia, the sun is setting, but because of the smog it’s hard to tell. In 2018, a study found the city was becoming more polluted between 2014 and 2016, after several years of decreasing pollution.

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Philadelphia at sunset.
source
Dick Swanson / EPA

Source: Philadelphia magazine


In Pittsburgh, which was once called “Hell with the lid off,” thick smoke creates a haze over the city.

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Smoke over Pittsburgh.
source
John Alexandrowicz / EPA

Source: The Allegheny Front


A junkyard looms in front of the Monongahela River, which runs through Pittsburgh. According to Mayor Tom Murphy in 2001, the biggest complaint he heard about the city was that it was too dirty.

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A junkyard in front of the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh.
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John Alexandrowicz / EPA

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


Near Pittsburgh, oil-coated trees on the shore of the Ohio River show the damage done by spills and industry.

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Oil along the shore of the Ohio River, near Pittsburgh.
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John Alexandrowicz / EPA

In San Francisco Bay, the Leslie salt ponds gleam at sunset. The ponds were built to extract salt from the bay water. In 2019, the EPA ruled the land, owned by Cargill Salt, was not bound by the Clean Water Act. The photographer behind this photo said the “water stinks.”

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Leslie Salt Ponds in San Francisco.
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Belinda Rain / EPA

Sources: KALW, Mercury News


In San Francisco, industrial black smoke billows out of a stack. During the 1970s, the biggest problem for the city was ozone pollution, which mainly comes from cars, industrial plants, power plants, and refineries.

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Industry in the San Francisco Bay.
source
Belinda Rain / EPA

Source: China Dialogue, EPA


Here is one of the factories that polluted San Francisco.

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Concentration of industry in San Francisco.
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Belinda Rain / EPA

In Washington D.C., raw sewage flows out into the Potomac river. In 1970, a hot summer resulted in a “stomach-turning” smell coming from the Potomac, due to the mixing of sewage and algae. The pollution was blamed on a “hundred years of under-estimates, bad decisions, and outright mistakes,” a director of the Federal Water Quality Administration told The New York Times. His description can be applied to a lot of the US before the EPA.

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Raw sewage flows through the Georgetown Gap, in 1973.
source
John Neubauer / EPA

Source: The New York Times