Here’s The Pollution The EPA Had To Contend With When It Started

Published March 15, 2017
Updated January 7, 2019
Kids Smoke
Car Row
Coal Underground
Here’s The Pollution The EPA Had To Contend With When It Started
View Gallery

To many people these days, support of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) appears to be a purely partisan issue. Step back a handful of decades to the administration’s 1970 inception, however, and a different picture emerges.

As the 20th century wore on, the costs of economic growth — such as the increased incidence of polluted waterways and smog-filled skies — had ballooned, to the point that it became nearly impossible to avoid them. As appeared in the Ralph Nader Study Group’s “Vanishing Air” report in 1970:

“The New Yorker almost always senses a slight discomfort in breathing, especially in midtown; he knows that his cleaning bills are higher than they would be in the country; he periodically runs his handkerchief across his face and notes the fine black soot that has fallen on him; and he often feels the air pressing against him with almost as much weight as the bodies in the crowds he weaves through daily.”

Public interest in addressing pollution more than doubled between 1965 and 1970, with approximately 70 percent of individuals polled in a 1970 Opinion Research Corporation poll saying that they considered air pollution a somewhat or very serious problem (five years prior, only 28 percent of those polled responded that way).

It became clear that the federal government had to intervene. At that point in time, laws on pollution existed at municipal, state, and federal levels, but they by and large went unenforced. Thus, in 1970, President Richard Nixon signed an executive order that called for the establishment of the EPA.

As William Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the EPA under the Nixon administration, told the Center for Public Integrity, Republicans and Democrats alike came together to support the nascent agency.

“The issue of the environment was a very nonpartisan, bipartisan issue,” Ruckelshaus said. “There wasn't a lot of dispute over the need to protect public health, protect the environment.”

To Ruckelshaus, the media played a major role in pushing the question of acting to curb pollution beyond dispute.

“We had all kinds of evidence flashing across television screens every morning or every evening about rivers catching on fire, smog alerts, badly polluted waters and air all over the country,” he said. “And people were reacting to that and demanding action. And they saw the action was primarily at the state level and so they were strongly encouraging the federal government to take a more major role.”

In addition to establishing the EPA, the Nixon administration announced the creation of Documerica, a six-year-long photo project. As with the Farm Security Administration's photojournalistic pursuits in previous decades, the Nixon administration established the endeavor in an attempt to document the “environmental concerns of the early 1970s: water, air, and noise pollution; unchecked urbanization; poverty; environmental impact on public health; and youth culture of the day.”

Documerica dispatched around 100 photographers to all 50 states to document human interaction with the environment, compensating them with $150 a day along with film expenses. By 1974, Documerica had already amassed 80,000 photos — many of which are available for view in the National Archives.

While in many ways the photos may appear to be from another time, another place, another America that hadn’t quite gotten its act together yet, they serve as a stark reminder that unfettered growth generates problems of its own — and requires intervention in order to keep those problems under wraps.

“The environment isn’t an issue [where] you can claim victory and walk away from it,” Ruckelshaus said. “You have to stay everlastingly at it because the minute you take your eye off what’s happening, pollution rears its ugly head again.”

The U.S. isn't the only nation dealing with a pollution problem. For proof, check out the pollution in China and India.

All That's Interesting
Established in 2010, All That's Interesting brings together a dedicated staff of digital publishing veterans and subject-level experts in history, true crime, and science. From the lesser-known byways of human history to the uncharted corners of the world, we seek out stories that bring our past, present, and future to life. Privately-owned since its founding, All That's Interesting maintains a commitment to unbiased reporting while taking great care in fact-checking and research to ensure that we meet the highest standards of accuracy.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.