Vintage EPA photos reveal what Midwestern industrial cities looked like before the US regulated pollution

Streets in Cleveland, Ohio are obscured by smoke from heavy industry, July 1973.

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Streets in Cleveland, Ohio are obscured by smoke from heavy industry, July 1973.
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Documerica

Midwestern states like Illinois, Ohio, and Missouri are home to many coal-fired plants.

A growing number of these plants are shutting down, partly due to the declining costs of renewables. According to one recent Moody’s Analytics report, the price of wind power has fallen so rapidly that it could soon replace coal-fired plants in the Midwest.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has confirmed plans to eliminate the Clean Power Plan, the Obama-era program aimed at helping the United States meet its Paris climate agreement goals by curbing carbon emissions from power plants.

The announcement follows a series of other rollbacks from the Environmental Protection Agency, which is now without an administrator since Scott Pruitt resigned in June. Under Pruitt, the EPA has reversed a ban on a pesticide that can harm children’s brains. It has also moved to delay the Clean Water Rule, which clarified the Clean Water Act to prohibit industries from dumping pollutants into streams and wetlands.

If the Trump administration continues these types of measures, the US could return to some of the same conditions as we had before air and water quality were regulated.

Soon after the EPA’s founding in 1970, the agency dispatched 100 photographers to capture America’s environmental problems in a photo project called Documerica. Of the 81,000 images they took, over 20,000 photos were archived, and at least 15,000 have been digitized by the National Archives.

Check out a selection of Documerica photos of Midwestern cities that were taken in the early 1970s.


Many Documerica photos show scenes of general life in US in the 1970s, but several also document environmental issues.

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Two Youths in Uptown, Chicago, Illinois, August 1974.
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Documerica

Over 133.9 million Americans live in counties with unhealthy levels of air pollution, according to the American Lung Association’s 2018 “State of the Air” report. Looking at recent air quality data, the ALA points to several cities in the Midwest as the most polluted. (Cities in California overwhelmingly top the list, however.)


Coal-mining companies were big polluters in the Midwest in the 1970s.

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The Donald Cook Nuclear Power Plant Under Construction Near Lake Michigan, August 1973.
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Documerica

Source: Scientific American


President Trump has promised to bring back the industry, and nominated a coal lobbyist as the second-in-command at the EPA.

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Abandoned coal tipple surrounded by miles of stripped land stagnant water lies in the ditches in apparent violation of Ohio law, October 1973, New Athens, Ohio.
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Erik Calonius

Near Cadiz, Ohio, a coal company stripped mined the land surrounding this abandoned house in this 1974 photo.

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Documerica

Pollution in industrial cities like Cleveland, Ohio, and Chicago, Illinois, was particularly bad in the ’70s.

Streets in Cleveland, Ohio are obscured by smoke from heavy industry, July 1973.

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Clark Avenue and Clark Avenue Bridge. Looking East from West 13th Street, Are Obscured by Smoke from Heavy Industry, Cleveland, Ohio, July 1973.
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Documerica

Smog hangs over Louisville, Ohio in this 1972 photo.

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Documerica

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.


Before the EPA, there was little regulation on companies that dumped pollutants into rivers, lakes, and oceans.

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People swim at a 12th Street beach on Lake Michigan on Chicago’s South Side in the summer of 1973.
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John White

This 1972 photo shows a burning barge on the Ohio River.

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Documerica

A fire on Northeast Ohio’s Cuyahoga River in 1969 (the 13th time it had caught fire) helped inspire the creation of the EPA. The river’s discolored water in this 1973 photo is sewage.

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Documerica

Near Cleveland, residents placed old cars along the Cuyahoga River’s bank to prevent erosion, as seen in this 1975 photo.

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Documerica

This 1973 photo shows the severely deformed spine of a Jordanella fish, due to methyl mercury present in the water in Duluth, Minnesota.

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Documerica

The EPA now uses the Clean Water Act to prohibit companies from contaminating water.

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Flocks of blue geese and snow geese stop at the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge near Mound City, Missouri, October 1974.
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Patricia Duncan

In 1973, Mary Workman of Steubenville, Ohio filed a lawsuit against a coal company, accusing it of polluting her water. She holds a jar of undrinkable water from her well in this photo.

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Erik Calonius/Documerica

Over the years, the EPA has spearheaded mass trash removals that focus on toxic chemicals in landfills and stormwater systems nationwide.

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Men stand in Chicago’s South Side, 1974.
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John White

In 1973, the EPA held an exhibit of low-pollution vehicles in Ann Arbor, Michigan, largely due to concerns about emissions from gas and diesel vehicles. The men pictured below are checking out a “Sundancer,” an experimental electric car.

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Documerica

Without EPA regulation, the past could become the future.

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Sunrise On Lake Michigan With Chicago Shown In The Background, March 1974.
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Documerica