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

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Soon after the EPA's founding, the agency dispatched photographers to capture America's environmental problems. Here's what they saw.

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

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

(Chester Higgins/Documerica)
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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 New York City was even worse.

Soon after the EPA's founding, the agency dispatched 100 photographers to capture America's environmental problems 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 rolled back a number of environmental regulations and moved toward repealing the Clean Water Rule, which clarified the Clean Water Act to prevent industries from dumping pollutants into waterways and wetlands. On Monday, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt said the Trump administration plans to eliminate the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration's biggest initiative to fight climate change by curbing emissions.

Many reports suggest that Pruitt aims to kill environmental protections and dismantle much of the regulatory agency. If he succeeds, parts of the US could return to the state they were in before EPA regulations.

Here's a selection of Documerica photos of New York City 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.

Interior of a graffiti-marked subway, 1973. play

Interior of a graffiti-marked subway, 1973.

(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.

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. play

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.

(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.

play

(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.

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. play

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.

(Will Blanche/Documerica)

Source: The New York Times



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

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

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

(Will Blanche/Documerica)


In 1973, an abandoned car sat in Jamaica Bay ...

In 1973, an abandoned car sat in Jamaica Bay ... play

In 1973, an abandoned car sat in Jamaica Bay ...

(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.

... 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. play

... 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.

(Arthur Tress/Documerica)


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

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

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

(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.

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. play

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.

(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.

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

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

(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.

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. play

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.

(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.

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

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

(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.

A woman sits on a pier overlooking the Hudson River, 1973. play

A woman sits on a pier overlooking the Hudson River, 1973.

(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:

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: play

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:

(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.

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. play

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.

(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.

Commuters in lower Manhattan, 1973. play

Commuters in lower Manhattan, 1973.

(Will Blanche/Documerica)

Source: EPA



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

A couple on the Staten Island ferry, 1973. play

A couple on the Staten Island ferry, 1973.

(Will Blanche/Documerica)