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In 1968, two years before April 22 was first celebrated as Earth Day, LIFE magazine dispatched photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt to the Great Lakes to capture a crisis that required no national awareness day to make itself known.
“Lake Erie, the smallest and shallowest of the five lakes, is also the filthiest; if every sewage pipe were turned off today, it would take 10 years for nature to purify Erie. Ontario is a repository for Buffalo-area filth. Michigan, where 16 billion small fish, called seawives, mysteriously died last year, is a cul-de-sac without an overflow pipe, and if Michigan becomes further polluted, the damage may take 1,000 years to repair,” the magazine explained. “Huron and Superior are still relatively clean, but they are in danger.”
And, statistics aside, the photographs Eisenstaedt produced told the story in lurid browns, oranges and grays, punctuated by the vivid iridescence of the occasional oil slick. As many in the United States were starting to realize, pollution of the American environment seemed to be reaching a point of no return. From that, there was some hope. “For selfish as well as civic reasons, more has been done in the past three years to clean the lakes than in the preceding 30,” the article reported.
Though federal water-protection laws did exist already (the Federal Water Pollution Control Act was 20 years old at that point) they were only just starting to get teeth, and technology that would facilitate a clean-up was improving. In 1972, the law was revamped as the Clean Water Act, and the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency made the lakes a priority. They still are, just as they are still under threat from a variety of sources. Though progress has been made on some fronts — Lake Erie has come back from the “dead” — the words of one teenager who wrote to the Secretary of the Interior in the 1960s, and who was subsequently quoted by LIFE, still read as a warning.
“I was truly amazed,” he remarked upon visiting a polluted lakeshore, “that such a great country should not solve this problem before it’s too late.”