In the 1960s, America was a dirtier, uglier place than it is today. Illegal dumping was widespread. Sewage often mingled with river water that upstream communities swam in or drank from. And smokestacks stood directly alongside residential developments.
Two catalysts would bring about lasting change and inspire the Environmental Protection Agency. One was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Published in 1962, Silent Spring alerted the public to the dangers of the pesticide DDT and unveiled the petrochemical industry’s dangerous misinformation campaign.
The second was the Cuyahoga River fire in 1969. Time described the state of the Cuyahoga at the time of the fire:
“Some river! Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows.”
When this flammable stew caught fire, it caused $50,000 in damage.
These mounting environmental dangers led to louder calls for government intervention. Finally, Richard Nixon founded the EPA in 1970. Landmark legislation like the Clean Water Act soon followed.
Of course, the EPA didn’t solve every environmental problem in the country. But things could be worse. A lot worse. It’s only because of modern environmental legislation and regulations that we were able to stop tearing the hole in the ozone layer, remove lead from gasoline, and restrict the use of dangerous pesticides.
Today, the hard-won gains achieved by the EPA are under threat. President Donald Trump’s proposed budget dramatically slashes EPA funding, and he’s already installed a known climate denier as the agency’s head.
As one of the world’s largest producers of greenhouse gas, the United States has an obligation to lead on environmental and climate issues. And if we are to avoid returning to the bad old days before the EPA, we need to remind people of what the country used to look like.
Check out more photos of the EPA’s archival image collection here.
Featured image via National Archives and Records Administration.