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.
Within 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.”
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.
The 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.
Or 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.
Environmentalists will recognize those names as sites of deadly smog events in the mid-1900s. In Donora, in October 1948, 27 people died and hundreds became sick. In the Meuse Valley incident, back in 1930, 60 people died and thousands developed severe breathing problems. In London, just four years after Donora, a staggering 4,074 people died and tens of thousands of people became seriously ill.
Common to all three tragedies were two key elements. First, large factories in each area had been spewing enormous amounts of pollutants into the air, the most deadly being sulfur dioxide. And second, Mother Nature came calling in the form of something called a temperature inversion.
On most days the air is coolest higher in the atmosphere and warmest nearest the ground. Air isn’t a terribly good conductor of heat energy, so most of the sun’s energy warms Earth’s surface. Sometimes, though, air in higher elevations becomes warmer than air at the surface. That layer of warm air then traps the cooler air below, putting a kind of lid on the area. Temperature inversions happen with some regularity throughout the world and are particularly common in valleys. When moisture clings to the air during an inversion, you’ll see fog. Typically fog “burns off” during the morning, dissipating when surface air warms.
Sometimes, though, fog lingers. Combine that with pollutants also being held down by the layer of warmer air above and you’ve got the makings of a tragedy. People begin breathing air with increasingly higher concentrations of sulfur dioxide, fluorine, and other toxins from factory fumes. When sulfur dioxide combines with water vapor, the result is sulfur trioxide, a dangerous toxin and the primary component of what we know today as acid rain. That chemical change also begins robbing the air of oxygen and increasing the potential that humans, farm animals, and pets will suffocate and die. The longer the inversion lasts, the more deadly the effects.
Donora’s inversion lasted six days before rain finally broke it up. In London and the Meuse Valley, the inversion lasted five days. In all cases the death toll mounted quickly. One undertaker in Donora, Rudolph Schwerha, talked not long after the event with journalist Berton Roueché of The New Yorker about his return home after an arduous 2-mile journey in dense, black fog to pick up a body.
My wife was standing at the door. Before she spoke, I knew what she would say. I thought, Oh, my God — another! I knew it by her face. And after that came another. Then another. There seemed to be no end. By 10 o’clock in the morning I had nine bodies waiting here. Then I heard that DeRienzo and Lawson, the other morticians, each had one. Eleven people dead! My driver and I kept looking at each other. What was happening? We didn’t know. I thought probably the fog was the reason. It had the smell of poison. But we didn’t know.
We know now, of course, and today our air is significantly cleaner than it was then. It’s not perfect, not by a long shot, but it is much improved from the last century. Let’s hope the air becomes even cleaner this century.
The Monongahela River meanders from the West Virginia coal country to the middle of Pittsburgh, where it joins the Allegheny River to form the Ohio, a famous confluence called Three Rivers. Along the way the river curls around this hill and that, forming elbows and horseshoes that can make travel between towns along its banks long and lonely.
Along one of those curves, a large horseshoe about 30 miles due south of Pittsburgh, lies a a town called Donora, an old mill town that would largely be forgotten now were it not for an unusually long patch of unlucky weather that led to the deaths of hundreds of people and ultimately prompted the creation of the Clean Air Act. For it was at that horseshoe curve that at the turn of the 20th century a wealthy Indiana industrialist, William H. Donner, and his famous boss, Andrew W. Mellon, had decided to build a series of steel plants to supply the growing needs of a flowering America.
The plants employed thousands of Donora residents, supplied steel and wiring for hundreds of buildings, bridges, and highways, and spewed untold tons of respiratory pollutants and irritants into the air. In the fall of 1948 Mr. Donner’s plants gave grave notice to the town that all was not well.
On Tuesday October 26, the air over Donora became foggy from cool air being trapped beneath warmer air above in what meteorologists term a temperature inversion. Normally inversions last less than a day, but this one lasted a devastating five days. Within two days the fog had turned into a stinging, yellowish-gray shroud so thick that many people couldn’t drive, couldn’t even walk without stumbling. “It was so bad,” said one resident, “that I’d accidentally step off the curb and turn my ankle because I couldn’t see my feet.”
On the worst day, Saturday the 30th, two brave volunteer firefighters, Bill Schempp and Jim Glaros, worked their way around town, each feeling his way from house to house to deliver oxygen to residents with respiratory problems. Each visit lasted only a few minutes and happened the same way. The firefighter placed a mask on someone struggling to breathe and turned the oxygen on for just a few seconds, what they called a “shot of oxygen.” Just as the person began to breathe more easily, the firefighter then moved to the next house. The residents needed continuous oxygen but there simply weren’t enough oxygen tanks to go around. “These people were just desperate for air,” said historian Brian Charlton, curator of the Donora Smog Museum and active member of the Donora Historical Society.
So it was that two firefighters, men who had lived and worked with the people of Donora for years, who had fought fires, transported the sick and injured to local hospitals, and plucked frightened cats from raging storm drains, had to decide how much oxygen to give each resident. They had to say over and over, No, I’m sorry, as they shut off the oxygen and removed the mask. They had to listen to those desperately ill people plead with them, begging for their life, and then these volunteers had to walk away knowing they might never see their friends alive again.
All told 27 people would die over that six-day period, at least 50 more the following month, and hundreds more over the following years. The event spurred an investigation by the Division of Industrial Hygiene, then part of the U.S. Department of Public Health and now part of the Environmental Protection Agency. After numerous states, including Pennsylvania, enacted their own clean air acts, the Government decided that clean air should be a national priority and in 1955 passed the first national air pollution law, initially called the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955 (public law 84–159), later renamed the Clean Air Act.
Today Donora residents maintain a sense of pride about the tragic events of that dark October 68 years ago. In a 2009 interview with NPR, long-time Donora resident Don Pavelko said, “We here in Donora say this episode was the beginning of the environmental movement. These folks gave their lives so we could have clean air.”