10 Vintage Images of Pollution in America

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Earth Day didn’t launch the environmental movement, but the first observation of this day in 1970 coincided with a growing public awareness that quite literally changed the American landscape. Later that same year, the U.S. created the Environmental Protection Agency. The government soon passed a number of laws (including the Clean Water Act and major amendments to the existing Clean Air Act) that have dramatically improved the environment. Individual states also stepped in with their own regulations. It’s hard to imagine how we once took for granted practices such as dumping raw sewage into rivers and burning trash piles. In celebration of this Earth Day, here are a few ugly vintage photos to show just how bad things were before Americans became more eco-friendly.


10. Midday in the Steel City

Credit: University of Pittsburgh

This early 1940s image from Pittsburgh shows a typical day in the Steel City during that era, when drivers often had to use their headlights at midday. City and business leaders took a number of steps to clear the air.


9. Flaming River

Credit: Cleveland State University Library

Cleveland became the butt of jokes around the country when the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969. That event proved a major impetus for the Clean Water Act of 1972. Lost to history is this fact: the river had actually caught on fire 12 other times dating to 1868, including the above fire in 1952.


8. Dust Bowl

Credit: Public Domain

A dust storm blows through Stratford, Texas, in 1935. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s is generally regarded as the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history; more than 2.5 million Americans were forced to migrate from the Great Plains. While a couple of variables that created those conditions, such as extreme heat and a long drought, could arise simultaneously again, better soil-management conditions today would help limit the damage.


7. Awaiting Detox

Credit: Public Domain

This image of the Valley of the Drums, a toxic waste site south of Louisville, Ky., was taken around 1980. More than 100,000 drums of toxic waste were accepted at the site in the 1960s and ’70s; when they began rusting and leaking into the groundwater, officials took notice. The site is regarded as a major influence behind the passage of the Superfund Act of 1980, which was created to clean up toxic sites around the country. As of early 2017, there were more than 1,300 Superfund sites awaiting cleanup.


6. Artificial Disaster

Credit: Navy Combat Camera Dive

In hindsight, the concept seems preposterous — take 2 million old car tires and sink them off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to create an artificial reef. This 1970s project, Osborne Reef, worked about as well as you would expect, creating an environmental nightmare. Originally banded together, the tires came apart when the bands corroded; hurricanes have spread thousands of these tires along the Eastern Seaboard. Others were washed against nearby natural reefs, damaging them. After Florida and other entities spent years trying to remove tires, the U.S. military got involved in 2007, beginning debris removal as part of their underwater training. The cleanup will take many years.


5. On the Waterfront

Credit: Cleveland State Library Special Collections

The muddy, polluted waters of the Cuyahoga River pour into Lake Erie in 1966. While part of that discoloration is sediment from upstream, the lake battled a terrible pollution problem in that era, caused by industrial discharges, agricultural runoff and sewage. The situation inspired a popular phrase at the time — “Lake Erie is dead.” The Clean Water Act, along with a joint U.S./Canadian venture, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1972, helped alleviate the problem.


4. Smoke Screen

Credit: Public Domain

Cars belching exhaust, smokestacks spewing pollutants, power lines and poles everywhere — this photo epitomized much of urban America before the advent of the environmental movement. The use of emissions equipment on cars, unleaded gas, factory emissions standards and buried power lines have transformed the landscape from this urban horror.


3. Totally Raw

© Trey Ratcliff

For a couple of centuries, Americans thought it perfectly normal to dump raw sewage into their waterways. In the interest of full disclosure, the above photo was taken in Asia, but is used here to graphically illustrate a practice once common in America. We searched everywhere for photos of raw sewage discharges from the 20th century, but struck out — perhaps because that is not the kind of thing anyone would proudly document, even in the bad old days. Today, the overflow of untreated sewage into lakes and rivers during storms remains a problem in some areas.


2. Manmade Disaster

© Jim Brickett

As the captain slept off a hangover, the 987-foot oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck a reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989. The disaster spilled around 11 million gallons of crude oil; that oil eventually covered 1,300 miles of Alaskan coastline and killed an estimated quarter-million seabirds and other marine life. Something good came of the incident, however, as the U.S. government began requiring double hulls in such tankers. The Valdez disaster is the second-largest oil spill in U.S. history, behind the Deepwater Horizon incident in 2010.


1. Deadly Smog

© New York Times/Fair use

These were the dismal conditions during the deadly “New York City Smog” in late November 1966. Stagnant weather patterns trapped a cloud of toxic pollutants over the city for several days. One study estimated 168 people died because of the smog and hundreds more had their lives shortened. Smog from industry and vehicle exhaust became such a problem in the U.S. around that period that Life Magazine in 1970 predicted, “In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution.”

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