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In '72, EPA battled pollution; now it's politics

WASHINGTON -- A polluted drainage ditch that once flowed with industrial waste from petrochemical plants in Lake Charles, Louisiana now teems with overgrown, wild plants.

A light-rail line zips past the spot where a now-defunct Portland, Oregon, gasoline station advertised in 1972 that it had run out of gas.

A smoking Jersey City, New Jersey, dump piled with twisted, rusty metal has disappeared, along with the twin towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan that were its backdrop.

Forty years after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent an army of nearly 100 photographers across the country to capture images at the dawn of environmental regulation, The Associated Press went back for Earth Day this year to see how things have changed. It is something the agency never got to do because the Documerica program, as it was called, died in 1978, the victim of budget cuts.

AP photographers returned to more than a dozen of those locations in recent weeks, from Portland to Cleveland and Corpus Christi, Texas. Of the 20,000 photos in the archive, the AP selected those that focused on environmental issues, rather than the more general shots of everyday life in the 1970s.

Gone are the many obvious signs of pollution — clouds of smoke billowing from industrial chimneys, raw sewage flowing into rivers, garbage strewn over beaches and roadsides — that heightened environmental awareness in the 1970s, and led to the first Earth Day and the EPA's creation in 1970. Such environmental consciousness caused Congress to pass almost unanimously some of the country's bedrock environmental laws in the years that followed.

Today's pollution problems aren't as easy to see or to photograph. Some in industry and politics question whether environmental regulation has gone too far and whether the risks are worth addressing, given their costs.

The likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has called for the firing of EPA chief Lisa Jackson, while Republican rival Newt Gingrich has said the EPA should be replaced altogether. Jackson has faced tough questioning on Capitol Hill so often the in past two years that a top Republican quipped that she needs her own parking spot.

“To a certain extent, we are a victim of our own success,” said William Ruckelshaus, who headed the EPA when it came into existence under Republican President Richard Nixon and was in charge during the Documerica project. “Right now, EPA is under sharp criticism partially because it is not as obvious to people that pollution problems exist and that we need to deal with them.”

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This photo taken April 14 shows Neptune Road in the East Boston neighborhood of Boston, which ends at the Logan Airport perimeter. (AP)

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