The incident took place on Halloween weekend, 63 years ago.
Over time, we learned from the incident. Congress passed laws, the laws were enforced, business practices changed dramatically, and the chances of such an incident ever happening again in the U.S. became minuscule.
Still, it's worth retelling the story, especially now, when the laws that resulted from the incident are under ideological attack from political figures who might not know about the incident or, worse, might believe there is no role for government in making sure something like it never happens again.
The incident happened in Donora, Pa., a mill town on the Monongahela River south of Pittsburgh. Donora's economy ran on coal. Donora made its living from a steel mill that burned coal to fire coke ovens, melt iron ore in blast furnaces, and produce finished steel in open hearths. Donora men also worked at a zinc plant that burned coal to smelt ore and produce zinc used for creating strong steel alloys. Day and night, the mills ran.
In those days, mill emissions were unregulated and uncontrolled. Smoky, smelly air that killed the grass and ruined the paint was thought to be an unavoidable part of living with industries that employed thousands of local men and put food on the tables of their families. Coal did more than fuel the local economy. Coal heated homes that Donora's men returned to after their work shifts. Coal powered the trains that chugged through town.
On Tuesday, October 26, 1948, an atmospheric inversion slammed a lid on Donora. Inversions prevent the air from mixing and dispersing pollution. The inversion that October week was unusually strong. All the airborne detritus from uncontrolled furnaces, ovens, stoves, and locomotives stayed put in the valley. The foul mixturecarbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, metal dust, fluoride compoundsmixed with fog. The miasma built and thickened as the days passed.
Still, Donorans went about their business, even as the acrid gloom turned day into night. The town went ahead with its annual Halloween parade on Friday evening, October 29. The next day, Donorans filled the stands at Legion Field for high school football, as the hometown heroes, the Donora Dragons, went up against their big rivals, the Monongahela Wildcats, on a field clouded by the polluted air. The fans had a hard time seeing the action. The players had a hard time seeing the ball.
Back in town, a public health disaster was unfolding. In her 2002 book, When Smoke Ran Like Water ($5.50 at amazon.com), epidemiologist and Donora native Devra Davis spelled out the grim details:
"Doc Rongaus gave the same advice to anyone who would listen. Leave if you can. The firemen of Donora went from door to door delivering whiffs of oxygen from tanks to those who were stranded. One of the firemen, John Volk, remembered borrowing oxygen canisters from the Monongahela, Monesen, and Charleroi fire departments. 'There never was such a fog. You couldn't see your hand in front of your face, day or night. Hell, even inside the station, the air was blue. I drove on the left side of the street with my head out the window, steering by scraping the curb.'"
Years later, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted a local fireman who recalled, "If you could chew (the air) hard enough, you could swallow it."
Block after block in Donora, townspeople fell sick. Shortness of breath. Headaches. Vomiting. Bloody sputum. Local hospitals ran out of beds. Doctors were run ragged. A local mortuary ran out of coffins. Pets and farm animals keeled over in their tracks. Word got out. Phone lines jammed as frantic out-of-towners tried to call their Donora relatives. Yet all day Saturday, as the sickness and misery spread, the mills kept running. No one in authority had any power to order them off line. On Sunday morning, Halloween, the zinc mill manager grudgingly shut the smelter down for a day under orders from the front office.
On Monday, Nov. 1, the inversion lifted. Rains came and scrubbed the filth from the skies. By the time blue skies returned, 20 Donorans had died. Nearly half the town of 14,000 had fallen sick.
Donora was a trigger, one of several, that spurred research, debate, hearings, and finally, legislation. Twenty-two years after the Donora smog, Congress passed the Clean Air Act by strong bipartisan majorities, and President Richard Nixon signed it into law. America's air is much cleaner as a result. Technologies that didn't exist in 1948 were invented to clean up motor vehicles, mills, and factories. An urgent need sparked innovation.
Today, you can visit the Donora Smog Museum and learn about the incident. The museum's slogan is: Clean Air Started Here. Those in office who think the U.S. could do without the Clean Air Act ought to pay a visit.
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