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When rivers caught fire and bald eagles were poisoned: why we need the Environmental Protection Agency

Children play in front of a smelter pumping lead and arsenic residue in the air of Ruston, Washington; a woman holds a glass of black, undrinkable water from her well in Ohio; and the view from the George Washington Bridge in Manhattan is so hazy with smog that the New Jersey skyline is impossible to see. These scenes were captured in the early 1970s as part of a project, called Documerica, that was commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency to document pollution in the US. Today, the photos show what America looked like before environmental protections were put in place — and they serve as an important reminder of why we need those protections.

Today, the future of the EPA is uncertain. The new EPA leader, Scott Pruitt, has made a career out of suing the agency for its environmental regulations, working hand in hand with the fossil fuel industry. President Donald Trump is expected to drastically cut the EPA’s budget and workforce, as well as roll back many of the regulations that empower the agency. And a bill meant to terminate the EPA by December 2018 was recently introduced in the House by three Republican congressmen.

A woman holds a jar of undrinkable water from her well in Ohio in 1973. She filed a damage suit against the Hanna Coal Company, which owned the land around her house.
Photo by Erik Calonius / US National Archives

But most ordinary people haven’t forgotten life before the EPA — and the majority of them don’t want these cuts to the agency. More than 60 percent of Americans want to see the EPA’s powers preserved or strengthened under Trump, according to a Reuters / Ipsos poll released last month. And it’s not just liberals, either — almost half of Republicans wanted the EPA to continue in its mission as well. Only 19 percent of Americans would like to see the agency “weakened or eliminated.”

“There’s tremendous public support for clean air and clean water, and the basic mission of the agency is tremendously popular,” Paul Sabin, an environmental historian at Yale University, tells The Verge. “People are counting on the government to provide those protections.”

A smoggy view from the George Washington Bridge in 1973.
Photo by Chester Higgins / US National Archives

In fact, when the EPA was created in 1970 by Republican President Richard Nixon, there was broad bipartisan support for it. “Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions,” Nixon said in his 1970 State of the Union speech. “It has become a common cause of all the people of this country.” That’s because in the 1950s and ‘60s, Americans could witness pollution firsthand — not just in EPA photographs.

Most US cities — from New York to Los Angeles, which was renamed the smog capital of the world — were engulfed in smog. In 1948, in the small town of Donora, Pennsylvania, 20 people died and many others got sick because of toxic, thick yellow smog produced by the local zinc plant and steel mill. In 1969, a layer of oil and debris floating on the surface of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was set on fire when sparks from a train landed on the polluted water. The iconic image of the burning river, published in Time, sparked outrage, but in fact the photo was taken in 1952, when a similar accident occurred. Though the Cuyahoga is the most famous, burning rivers across the US were not an unusual sight back then.

Children play in the yard of a home in Ruston, Washington, while a smelter stack showers the area with arsenic and lead residue in 1972.
Photo by Gene Daniels / US National Archives

The EPA — and environmental regulations like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act the agency enforces — helped change all that. From 1970 to 2015, national emissions of pollutants like lead, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide have declined by an average of 70 percent. These and more changes meant 160,000 people in the US didn’t die prematurely due to air pollution in 2010 alone. But deaths aren’t all of it: 86,000 emergency room visits and 13 million lost days from work were also prevented. That’s good for human health and for the economy. Since the 1980s, the EPA has also worked with local authorities to clean up some of the most polluted sites in the US, from landfills that caught fire to radioactive waste housed close to residential areas.

The EPA has also played a central role in saving wildlife like the iconic bald eagle. After World War II, the birds were ingesting the widely used pesticide DDT. It turned out DDT made eagles lay eggs with such weak shells that the adult eagles would crush the eggs in the nest as they tried to incubate the next generation. By 1963, fewer than 500 nesting pairs of bald eagles remained. In 1972, the EPA banned DDT — which by then was also shown to pose health risks to people — and bald eagle populations rebounded. In 2007, the birds were taken off the threatened and endangered species list.

An illegal dumping area off the New Jersey Turnpike, facing Manhattan across the Hudson River in 1973.
Photo by Gary Miller / US National Archives

“The American environment is dramatically improved from what it was in the 1970s, before the EPA was created,” says Cody Ferguson, an assistant professor of history at Fort Lewis College who’s currently researching the EPA’s Documerica project. And the EPA has “played a central role in affecting those improvements.” Bob Deans, at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says it a bit more bluntly: “The EPA is the last line of defense between environmental ruin and a livable world,” he tells The Verge. “Do we want our children to drink water with lead in it? Do we want our rivers catching on fire? Nobody wants these things.”

In his first speech to the EPA, Pruitt said that he wishes to give responsibility for environmental protection back to the states. But pollution doesn’t respect state boundaries. For instance, acid rain in the Northeastern US, which was causing strong environmental damage in the Adirondacks in the 1980s, was largely due to pollution coming from Midwestern states like Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan, Deans says. So by setting national standards, the EPA can make sure every state complies with regulations — and prevents damage to surrounding states from ones that might have looser regulations. “An important thing the EPA does is create a level playing field across the nation,” Sabin says.

Raw sewage flows into the Potomac River in Washington, DC, in 1973.
Photo by John Neubauer / US National Archives

Today, the environmental challenges aren’t as obvious as those of the ‘60s and ‘70s — with burning rivers and cities choked by smog — but they’re as important as ever. Climate change will pose new threats to our environment and health, from rising sea levels to heat waves and more destructive natural disasters. We’re in the middle of a mass extinction. And lead in drinking water is a problem that still affects millions of Americans across the US. “To some degree, we’ve started taking the environment and environmental protection for granted,” Ferguson says.

But if the EPA’s authority is diminished or the agency is terminated, all those years of progress might go to waste. The environmental degradation recorded by the EPA’s photos in the 1970s wasn’t so long ago. “We have to acknowledge that just because we had this success, we have these improved conditions, doesn’t mean that the job is anywhere near done,” Ferguson says. The EPA is “the top national steward to protect our environment and health,” Deans says. “What could be more important?”

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