Even Cleaner Air Starts in Donora

Even Cleaner Air Starts in Donora

With the EPA undergoing extensive downsizing and the Trump administration wanting to open previously protected lands to oil and shale drilling, Donora continues to remind the nation of the need for clean air.

The recent opening of a natural gas fueling station near the site of the old steel mills in Donora provides yet another lesson for the nation. Nearly 69 years ago a weather condition called a temperature inversion trapped smoke pouring out of steel and zinc mills in Donora. The smoke contained pollutants and toxic gases and led to the deaths of 27 people during the event and hundreds more later.

harrytrumanheadshotWithin two years President Harry S. Truman would call the nation’s first technical conference on air pollution, citing the deaths in Donora as the final straw. He told the scientists gathered at the conference, “Air contaminants exact a heavy toil. They destroy growing crops, damage valuable property, and blight our cities and the countryside. In exceptional circumstances, such as those at Donora, Pa, in 1948, they even shorten human life. I trust that the recommendations made by this conference will aid in the shaping of a comprehensive plan for the study and control of atmospheric pollution.”

Those recommendations and other efforts led to the nation’s first clean air act in 1955, and for Donora, at least, clean air remains a priority. The Mid Mon Valley Transit Authority, which operates a 29-bus fleet, including eight that run on natural gas, is proud to have opened its compressed natural gas fueling station on the old mill site. “It’s ironic,” said the transit authority’s executive director Donna Weckoski, “that we’re on an old steel mill site that an one time caused the Donora smog 69 years ago. We’re bringing clean air to Donora.”

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Still Fighting for Clean Air Today

Still Fighting for Clean Air Today

As I continue to research the Donora smog tragedy of 1948, I am continually disgusted by the anti-environment rhetoric of and actions taken by the current administration. The President, as I write this, is expected to sign an executive order tomorrow that would roll back President Obama’s clean power plan to reduce carbon emissions and curb global warming.

whensmokeranlikewatercoverThe residents of Donora didn’t know much about smog in the 1940s. They didn’t know how deadly that rancid fog they breathed every day could be. To them, it was simply part of life. Devra Davis, an environmental epidemiologist and author of When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution, grew up in Donora. “Well, if you lived here it smelled just fine,” she writes. “People would come to the town, and they would say, ‘What’s that smell?’ And people who lived here would say, ‘What smell?’ And my grandpa would say, ‘Well, it smells like money.'”

Donorans feared for their jobs, so they quietly and, at the time quite reasonably, buried their head in the steel mill sand. It was just fog, they thought. What’s the big deal?

We now know how big a deal that fog was. We now know a number of things we didn’t know much about then:

  • Air pollution from factories, cars, trucks, wood-burning stoves, and the like cause heart and lung diseases and disorders.
  • Carbon dioxide and other pollutants break down Earth’s ozone layer and cause global warming.
  • Global warming is real, regardless of what the current administration might say. There is no debate about it among environmental scientists. None.

Scott Pruitt, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency– the very agency that came about partly due to the Donora tragedy and its aftermath — has said he doesn’t believe that the release of carbon dioxide is responsible for global warming. “I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do,” he has said, “and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact.”

No, Mr. Pruitt, you are wrong. Utterly and completely wrong.

I wonder how Ivan Ceh would feel about Mr. Pruitt’s comments and the current anti-environment agenda now in play in our nation’s capital. Mr. Ceh was the first victim of the Donora tragedy, succumbing at 1:30 in the morning on Saturday, the worst day of the smog.

Or how Ignace Hollowiti would feel. Ms. Hollowiti died sometime that Saturday morning before anyone could reach her with oxygen.

billschemppinfiretruckOr how firefighter Bill Schempp would feel. Mr. Schempp and fellow firefighter, Jim Glaros, worked around the clock, creeping from house to house in the black fog, to deliver oxygen to desperately ill residents.

I think they might feel betrayed. I think Mr. Ceh and Ms. Hollowiti might feel as if they had died in vain, and that Mr. Schempp’s and Mr. Glaros’ efforts weren’t as valiant as they certainly were.

I think they might feel as if the nation, which had been given such a tragic wake-up call, might be going back to sleep, going back to a time when the burning odor of polluted air was just a fact of life.

Stay awake, America. The people of Donora — and you — deserve it.

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