Earth Day 2012: Harder to See, Harder to Catch

Clark Avenue and Clark Avenue Bridge.

Given the recent billion-dollar sale of Instagram, it’s clear that the look of those faded, yellowed photos from the 1970’s are all the rage. EPA, not usually known for having its finger on the pulse of pop culture, recently posted hundreds of its “Documerica” project photos on Flickr with just the right amount of early 70’s patina. Best of all, these photos document the era right before the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts went into effect, a time full of belching factories, murky water and burning landfills. So bleak, so retro…oh EPA, you've stumbled into the hip and trendy!

It’s perversely easy to wax nostalgic for the bad old days, and not just because the images are so captivating. Environmental problems were so much more apparent back then. Coal plants in the middle of cities were covering cars and homes with soot and rivers ran red with chemicals and dyes or just burst into flames. The problems were immediate and apparent. With the hard work of countless scientists, regulators and citizens horrified by such ecological disasters, massive cleanups spread across the nation. While there are certainly plenty of these big problems left – point sources, as they're called in the eco world – the real concerns today involve the slow, hidden, pervasive threats: the non-point sources.

For Earth Day we decided to highlight the difference between then and now with a few handpicked Documerica photos alongside a few photos of today’s environmental challenges. Would an invisible “dead zone” inspire yesteryear’s outrage if it were more photogenic? Would mountaintop removal generate more opponents if dynamite were blasting close to suburban towns instead of small mountain villages? Check out the links to the photos below and see for yourself.

Yesterday Photos:

Man watching paper company wastewater flowing from a pipe
Polluted effluent gushes straight from the International Paper Company’s Androscoggin Mill into a Maine brook back in 1973. The Androscoggin River has seen big water quality improvements thanks to Clean Water Act  G  regulations, but local activists say that while the mill, now owned by Verso, may be meeting its license requirements, the amount of polluted water flowing from its discharge pipes is still too high.

Landfill in NYC
Back in 1973, the Fountain Avenue landfill was filling up with thousands of tons per day of New York City’s trash, construction debris and asbestos incinerator ash (along with a few mob victims). Opened in 1961, the landfill leaked heavy metals, oil, pesticides and PCBs into Jamaica Bay. Today the landfill, although still technically classified as a toxic waste site, has been transformed into a 400-acre nature preserve with prairie grasses and trees.

Chemical factory in the background of horse pasture land
The Atlas Chemical factory looms large over Texas pasture land in this 1972 photo. Black soot from the plant “covered everything nearby,” and area farmer claimed he lost several cows due to the plant’s soot and chemicals.

Today Photos:

Colorado cattle feedlot
This Colorado cattle feedlot is an example of a “CAFO” (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation). In the last few decades, consolidation of food production has led us to where many of today’s farms are in fact large industrial facilities, not the green pastures and red barns that most Americans living far from the nation’s agricultural regions imagine. Just 2 percent of livestock farms raise 40 percent of all animals in the United States. These consolidated operations produce food in high volume but lead to excessive waste created by large concentrations of animals, often handled in ways that can pollute air and water. Nutrients and bacteria from this waste can contaminate waterways, killing fish and shellfish and disturbing aquatic ecosystems.

Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico
Okay, so this is actually a satellite image of the Gulf of Mexico, not a photo, but can you spot the oxygen-depleted “dead zone?” Good luck, because it’s largely an invisible phenomenon. Look for where the greenish-brown plume enters the gulf and you'll have located the Mississippi River. That plume is a natural, and essential, source of sediment for Louisiana’s marshes, but it also indicates the invisible presence of mass quantities of nutrients from fertilizers – the root cause of the gulf’s dead zones – that have run off of industrialized farms within the Mississippi River’s watershed.

Mountaintop Removal Mining
While hardly invisible to residents of the Kentucky community in the foreground of the photo, destructive mountaintop removal mining occurs out of view of the vast majority of Americans. This highly-destructive mining for coal not only destroys entire mountains and related ecosystems, but buries streams, contaminates watersheds and presents significant public health hazards.

Bonus Ongoing Issue:

Power plants and water
This worker was measuring the temperature of water discharged from the P.H. Robinson power plant in Texas. Water is sucked in from Galveston Bay – along with fish eggs and larvae – used for cooling the plant’s steam, and then discharged at a higher temperature. In this case, the water was 20 degrees warmer which can be deadly for fish (like this guy). Hundreds of other power plants in the United States continue this practice, despite requirements in the Clean Water Act, passed the same year as this photo was taken, requiring that such fishkills be drastically reduced.