Striking images show what the environment looked like before the EPA
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Public concern for the environment led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, which began operations on Dec. 2, 1970.

Its mission? “To protect human health by safeguarding the air we breathe, water we drink and land on which we live,” according to the EPA website.

From 1971 to 1977, the agency created a visual baseline to understand the state of the environment. For the project, called Documerica, the EPA collected over 15,000 images related to environmental problems.

Here’s a look at some of the most striking images from the project:

This image shows an illegal dumping area in New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Manhattan, taken in March 1973.

Debris sits in an illegal dumping area off of the New Jersey Turnpike with Manhattan visible in the distance, March 1973.

In this photo of the Georgetown Gap, taken in April of 1973, raw sewage flows freely into the Potomac River.

A waterway in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. adjacent to the Watergate complex carries raw sewage into the Potomac River in April 1973.

This image from June 1972 captures "Old Darky," an Atlas Chemical plant that earned its nickname from the black soot that covered everything nearby.

An Atlas Chemical Company plant, referred to as "Old Darky" because of the black soot that it emits, belches smoke across pasture land near Marshall, Texas, in 1972.

The Tacoma Smelter Stack covers areas with arsenic and lead residue in this photo from August 1972.

Children play in the yard of a home in Ruston, Wash. while a Tacoma smelter emits arsenic and lead residue in August 1972.

This image captures the burning of discarded automobile batteries in July 1972.

Smoke billows from the burning of discarded automobile batteries in Harris County, Texas, July 1972.

Additional images from the project are available on the U.S. National Archive's Flickr page.