DONORA FIRE COMPANY

 

DONORA SMOG OF 1948

Donora Smog Kills 20

October, 1948      

Between Oct. 26 and 31, 1948, 20 people were asphyxiated and over 7,000 were hospitalized or became ill as the result of severe air pollution over Donora, Washington County, the Monongahela River town of 14,000.

The investigation of this incident by state and federal health officials resulted in the first meaningful federal and state laws to control air pollution and marked the beginning of modern efforts to assess and deal with the health threats from air pollution.

The following articles offer a variety of perspectives on this important event in Pennsylvania’s environmental heritage.

 

 

HISTORIC MARKER COMMEMORATES DONORA SMOG TRAGEDY

By

David Hess
Secretary
Dept. of Environmental Protection

A high school student's research led to the placement of a marker dedicated Oct. 28 by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in memory of the victims of the tragic air pollution incident of 1948 in the Washington County community of Donora. Between Oct. 26 and 31, 1948, 20 people were asphyxiated and over 7,000 were hospitalized or became ill as the result of severe air pollution in the Monongahela River town of 14,000.

The investigation of this incident by state and federal health officials resulted in the first meaningful federal and state laws to control air pollution and marked the beginning of modern efforts to assess and deal with the health threats from air pollution. To commemorate what has become known as the "Donora Smog," the Historical and Museum Commission dedicated a special historic marker in Donora Oct. 28.

Justin Shawley, the high school student who researched the incident and promoted placing a commemorative plaque, joined a number of officials in the ceremony.

Speakers included Betsy Mallison, DEP Southwest Regional community relations coordinator; U.S. Rep. Frank R. Mascara (D-Pa); Sen. J. Barry Stout (D-Washington); Washington County Commissioner Metro Petrosky and Donora Mayor John Lignelli.

A 1994 paper by Lynne Page Snyder of the University of Pennsylvania titled, "The Death-Dealing Smog Over Donora, Pennsylvania: Industrial Air Pollution, Public Health Policy and the Politics of Expertise, 1948-1949," describes the event and the response to the disaster and is quoted below. The paper was published in the Spring issue of the journal Environmental History Review.

"Pollution from the Donora Zinc Works smelting operation and other sources containing sulfur, carbon monoxide and heavy metal dusts, was trapped by weather conditions in the narrow river valley in and around Donora and neighboring Webster. Air pollution problems were recognized from the facility as early as 1918, when the plant owner paid off the legal claims for causing pollution that affected the health of nearby residents. In the 1920s, residents and farmers in Webster took legal action again against the company for loss of crops and livestock. Regular sampling of the air was begun in 1926 and stopped in 1935."

From local accounts of the time, Ms. Snyder provided this description of the 1948 disaster. "By Friday evening (Oct. 2), local residents were crowding into nearby hospitals and dozens of calls were made to the area's eight physicians. While Fire Department volunteers administered oxygen to those unable to breathe, Board of Health member Dr. William Rongaus led an ambulance by foot through darkened streets to ferry the dead and dying to hospitals or on to a temporary morgue. On Rongaus's advice, those with chronic heart or respiratory ailments began to leave town late Friday evening, but before noon on Saturday, 11 people died. Conditions had not improved by Saturday night, and with roads congested by smog and traffic, evacuation became impossible. The company operating the Donora Zinc Works finally ordered the plant shut down at 6 a.m. Sunday morning. By mid- day Sunday, rain had dispersed the smog.

"Pittsburgh itself escaped the episode primarily because it had just begun to enforce a smoke control ordinance and was cutting back on the use of bituminous coal as a fuel source. The Donora Smog gained national attention when Walter Winchell broadcast news of the disaster on his national radio show.

"The Pennsylvania Department of Health, United Steelworkers, Donora's Borough Council and the U.S. Public Health Service all participated in the investigation of the air pollution incident. The investigation was the first time there was an organized effort to document the health impacts of air pollution in the United States. Commenting on the studies of the incident, the Monessen Daily Independent wrote that damage from air pollution from the Zinc Works was 'something no scientific investigation is necessary to prove. All you need is a pair of reasonably good eyes.'

"Before the Donora smog, neither manufacturers nor public health professionals considered air pollution an urgent issue. At the annual meeting of the Smoke Prevention Association in May 1949, a leading industrial physician and consultant to insurance companies dismissed air pollution as a threat, except 'on rare occasions [when] Mother Nature has played us false.' The studies of the Donora Smog did not fix blame and could not document levels of pollution beyond workplace limits set at the time. The Public Health Service recommended a warning system tied to weather forecasts and an air sampling system be installed to avoid future incidents. The lessons learned at Donora resulted in the passage of the 1955 Clean Air Act and began modern air pollution control efforts in the Commonwealth.

"When the Zinc Works finally closed in 1957 the Monessen Daily Independent editorialized: 'the Zinc Works may have cost the valley more jobs than it ever supplied, and the cost to the Donora-Webster area in terms of general community welfare is probably incalculable. We hope the people of the Valley, particularly those in the Donora vicinity, will not receive the announcement about the Zinc Works with hand-wringing despondency. We think there is definitely a silver lining to this cloud.'"

Note: The "Donora Smog" is not the same "smog" or ozone of concern today in Pennsylvania. Today's smog is made from nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compound emissions. While today's air pollution problems do not approach the severity of the 1948 Donora Smog and are less visible to the "reasonably good" eye, Pennsylvania still has an ozone pollution problem. In 1995, air pollution is much less visible, but it is no less a threat to public health, particularly to the same people that were vulnerable to the Donora Smog - those with respiratory diseases like asthma, children, older people and people with chronic heart and lung conditions.

November 3, 1995

 

CLEANER AIR IS LEGACY LEFT BY DONORA'S KILLER 1948 SMOG

by
David Templeton
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Until October 1948, smoke belching from industrial plants in Donora and elsewhere was considered little more than a daily nuisance. Yes, it turned yards and hillsides barren. For sure, it sometimes made driving difficult. And, certainly, homeowners often had to repaint their houses to counteract the corrosive smoke.

But considering that U.S. Steel Corp.'s Donora Zinc Works and its American Steel & Wire plant employed thousands, Mon Valley residents were willing to live immersed in the billowing yellow smoke. "It's like today, with pollution from cars," said Bill Schempp, an 81-year-old resident of the Washington County town. "That's the way it was here. It was a normal way of life."

Until this day 50 years ago, when thick smog created from a temperature inversion and factory smoke blotted out Donora. Over several days, it killed 20 people and sickened 6,000 in one of America's greatest environmental disasters.

Blinding smog opened people's eyes to the mortal dangers of air pollution. It gave rise to local, regional, state and national laws to reduce and control factory smoke and culminated with the nation's Clean Air Act of 1970.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the killer smog, Donora residents and local, state and federal officials held a service yesterday at Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church in Donora to remember those who died and acknowledge how their sacrifice brought improvements to the air we now breathe.

Marcia Spink, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's associate director for air programs in Region III based in Philadelphia, gave the keynote address on "the debt of gratitude that the people of the United States owe Donora and the event that led to the federal Clean Air Act of 1970.

"It is definitely tied to the ability of this country to wake up and realize that air pollution isn't just a nuisance but something that makes things so dirty that it can kill people," she said.

Near the end of October 1948, a temperature inversion put a lid on the Mon Valley, trapping smoke spewing from zinc mill and steel mill smokestacks. It settled like dishwater in Donora and Webster, situated across the Mon River in Westmoreland County.

Smog laden with sulfur dioxide from the zinc works was something Donora residents had become used to. As it thickened, residents went about their normal routines. On Oct. 29, the smog hid players from the crowd at a high school football game, and later, it became too thick to drive. That evening, people walking outside couldn't see their hands in front of their faces.

Still, few had any sense of the danger encircling them.

Doctors recommended that people with breathing problems leave town, but driving was prohibited because of the smog. Evacuation became impossible. As elderly residents began dying, town officials unable to summon help opened a makeshift morgue.

Still, the zinc works continued operating day and night, sending more smoke into Donora. At 6 a.m. Sunday, facing growing problems, U.S. Steel finally shut down the plant. By then it was too late to prevent disaster. Twenty people were dead, 6,000 were sickened. And the world was watching.

Lost in the haze The Donora Zinc Works and the American Steel & Wire Co. plant, both operated by U.S. Steel Corp. and situated side-by-side along the Monongahela River bank, had long histories of pumping smoke into the skies above the small town 37 miles south of Pittsburgh.

"The Death-Dealing Smog over Donora, Pennsylvania: Industrial Air Pollution, Public Health Policy and the Politics of Expertise, 1948-1949," written by Lynn Page Snyder of the University of Pennsylvania, describes the disaster and its consequences.

Air pollution problems at the zinc works were recognized as early as 1918, when the plant owner paid legal claims for pollution that affected the health of nearby residents.

In the 1920s, residents and farmers in nearby Webster filed suit against the company for killing crops and livestock. As a result, air sampling was conducted from 1929 through 1936. But until 1948, smoke was generally considered a hassle rather than a health threat.

Fifty years ago today, Donora Mayor John "Chummy" Lignelli was among those at the football game. The smog was growing worse, but no one registered any fear, he said.

"You couldn't identify the ballplayers. You could see movement on the field, but you didn't know who had the ball and what was going on. But we stayed and watched."

Sometimes, balls that were kicked or punted were lost in the haze, not to be found. Alice Capone, a Donora teacher at the time, was in charge of the concession stand at the game.

"I didn't realize the seriousness of it, but I thought it would affect the crowd at the football game," she said. "We had 50 pounds of hot dogs. I was worried about the hot dogs, the pop, buns and candy [if no one showed up.]"

Monongahela defeated Donora in the smog bowl. During the game, one family was summoned home because of an emergency. It turned out that the father had died from the pollution. By noon Saturday, 11 people already had succumbed to the smoke. But people still didn't realize the danger. "I recall sitting outside the old borough building on a bench with the fire chief. A delivery truck from Pittsburgh comes by and they all had respirators on," Lignelli said.

"We asked them why they were wearing respirators. They said because the air is bad. I said, 'We don't have a problem here.' "

Schempp, a longtime Donora fireman, and his wife, Gladys, were attending a party on the ridge about two miles from Donora that Saturday. When they returned that evening, the ridge road was almost enveloped in smog.

"It was like going into a sink hole," said Schempp.

As their car creeped home, the couple noticed dim lights glowing near their house. They later realized the lights marked the site of the makeshift morgue.

"The air was yellow and so full of sulfur," Mrs. Schempp said. "It burned my eyes so badly that I had tears. My eyes were burning like fire."

When fire bells rang that evening, Schempp and other firemen learned that they were to take oxygen to residents struggling to breathe. Schempp said he had to feel his way along buildings and fences, go up the steps of each house and strain to make out the house number. Going several blocks took 45 minutes.

"If you chewed hard enough, you could swallow it," he said. "It almost got to the point where it was claustrophobic, it was so dense and thick. You couldn't see a thing. You had to get right up to the door and guess where you were.

"It sounds dramatic, but without exaggeration, that's the way it was."

Finding the right address, Schempp could only give the struggling person a few shots of oxygen before departing to find the next address.

"It almost broke my heart to leave," he said. "It was almost a terrible experience because it meant that you had to walk out of a house where people needed help."

Eventually, doctors decided it was too dangerous for firemen to cart oxygen through the smog. Everyone went to their homes to wait for the air to clear.

The Schempp's said they weren't overly concerned about the smog, until newspapers explained that 20 people were dead and thousands were sick.

"I remember the headline, 'Death Smog,' " Mrs. Schempp said. "Get out of town'

For days, doctors including William Rongaus and his brother, Walter, worked around the clock to treat stricken citizens. Many families fled Donora when it was possible to leave but returned when they discovered heavy smog in Pittsburgh and elsewhere.

"I told them to get out of town," William Rongaus said in a 1995 interview. "People were dying while I was treating them. I called it murder from the mill. I was mad, but where was I going to go for help?". The world's eyes and ears became focused on Donora's plight. Famed broadcaster Walter Winchell reported news about Donora on his show and described the impact of the killer smog.

In his lawsuit against American Steel & Wire for the death of his elderly wife, Suzanne, John Gnora described how his wife gasped and coughed for hours before she died.

"She was weak," he said. "That smoke was awful bad."

At 6 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 30, the Donora Zinc Works superintendent finally ordered the mill shut down because of the smog. Rain arrived later that day and rinsed the air of pollutants. The next day, the zinc works resumed production.

Soon after the smog dissipated, the state Department of Health, the United Steelworkers, Donora Borough Council and the U.S. Public Health Service launched investigations. It marked the first time that there was an organized effort to document health impacts of air pollution in the United States, Snyder noted in her paper.

Quoting the Monessen Daily Independent, she said the impact of air pollution from the zinc works was "something no scientific investigation is necessary to prove. All you need is a pair of reasonably good eyes."

The investigations prompted Public Health Service recommendations for a warning system tied to weather forecasts and air sampling. In 1955, the state passed the Clean Air Act, the first law to control air pollution, in direct response to Donora.

The zinc works closed in 1956. When the U.S. Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, the impact of smog on Donora was a key issue in congressional debates.

In 1995, Donora resident Justin Shawley, now 17, researched the Donora Smog and succeeded in having the state Historical and Museum Commission approve a historical marker that was placed at the Donora Public Library.

On Oct. 6, the state House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution, introduced by State Rep. Peter J. Daley, D-California, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Donora Smog.

"It is fitting that we, as a state, recognize this unfortunate occurrence and its victims," Daley said.

October 29, 1998

 

20 DIED. THE GOVERNMENT TOOK HEED.
IN 1948, A KILLER FOG SPURRED AIR CLEANUP

By
Jeff Gammage
Philadelphia Inquirer

DONORA, Pa. -- No one paid much mind to the dense gray fog that settled upon the valley that Friday evening 50 years ago, the people here long accustomed to the occasional gassy cloud that spewed from the local steel plant.

The children's Halloween parade went on as scheduled. So did the high school football game on Saturday, though by then the smog was so thick that fans in the grandstands couldn't see the players on the field.

By Saturday night, 11 people were dead, choked to death by the noxious cloud. Nine more died in the ensuing hours. By Monday, nearly 7,000 people -- half the town's population -- were ill at home or in hospitals, sickened by a lethal mix of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and metal dust.

Yet that four-day catastrophe in the fall of 1948 did something more than kill and injure. It gave birth to America's clean-air movement and forever vanished the notion that air pollution only dirtied the sky.

Tonight, 50 years after the incident known as "The Donora Smog," environmental officials, government leaders and everyday townspeople will gather at a hillside church here to honor the victims and the cleanup campaign spawned by their deaths.

"It was really a turning point," said Ruth Podems, spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency in Philadelphia. "The Donora tragedy was really the first time that public officials recognized the direct link between air pollution and public health, and it was the first time they mobilized to do anything about it."

To people here, that long-ago weekend was a horror movie turned real, their town beset by a clinging, killing fog that dropped dogs and cats in their tracks and wilted flowers and houseplants. The community center was turned into a temporary morgue, and the halls of Monongahela Memorial and Charleroi-Monessen Hospitals overflowed with the sick.

Back then, there was no central ambulance service to rush help to the injured, no CNN to warn people to flee. Instead, the phone lines jammed, and heavy traffic, confusion and poor visibility thwarted evacuation efforts.

"There wasn't a damn thing you could do about it," said Bill Schempp, 81, a volunteer fireman who toted tanks of oxygen to the stricken. "We had stagnant, noxious air, and it wasn't moving."

Afterward, federal and state health agencies launched extensive inquiries – the first organized effort to document the dangers of air pollution, according to the EPA. The hard lessons learned here helped produce a federal landmark clean-air act in 1955.

"It was their deaths that awakened the federal government," Mayor John Lignelli said.

Today, Donora is a struggling former steel town in the mid-Monongahela Valley, home to a Texaco station, a Family Dollar store, and not much else, best known as the birthplace of St. Louis Cardinals great Stan Musial. The downtown holds rows of empty storefronts; the streets are nearly deserted at noon.

Thousands of people left when the mill jobs disappeared -- today the population has sunk to 5,900, from the 14,000 who lived here in 1948.

Back then, steel mills and coke plants lined the Monongahela River north to Pittsburgh, 30 miles away. The biggest here was the Donora Zinc Works, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel, a four-mile-long smelting plant that employed 6,500 at its peak.

Local people figured the sporadic smelly fog that drifted from the mill was the price they paid for an abundance of good jobs. "It was our everyday life, and we just lived with it," Schempp said.

But the weekend that began on Oct. 29, 1948, was different.

Harry Loftus, 78, recalled how he stuck his head out of his car window, trying to see through the fog as he drove home that Friday night. He finally gave up and stayed at a friend's house.

The next day, John Lignelli was sitting in the high school grandstand, trying to watch the Donora team battle rival Monongahela High in the homecoming game. The fog was too thick to see the game. Lignelli could only listen, trying to follow the action through the whistles of the referees.

"It was scary, to be honest with you," said Lignelli, 77. "In those days, nobody would tell you anything when you turned to the steel mills. They would lead you to believe it wasn't coming from them."

No one knew that the emissions from the zinc works -- along with pollutants from coke plants, factories and even private, coal-burning homes -- had become trapped in the narrow river valley by a thermal inversion. Simply put, a high layer of warm air was pressing the toxins to the ground.

"It may sound dramatic or exaggerated, but you could barely see," said Schempp, who returned from a trip on Saturday night to find the town cloaked in haze.

Schempp noticed a light in the community-center basement, and thought it odd that someone was there so late. Only later did he learn the building had been commandeered as a morgue. Sunday morning, Schempp and other volunteer firefighters reported to the station, where they began answering call after call for oxygen.

He and another man grabbed two cylinders, tied handkerchiefs across their faces, and stepped outside into the cloud, trying to feel their way across town. It took 45 minutes to go five blocks. The firefighters didn't have enough oxygen for everyone, so they gave the injured three or four breaths and then moved on to the next house.

"They . . . resented that, because once we left, the person would go right back into that condition," Schempp said. "But there wasn't anything we could do about it. We had to help those other people."

Thousands were falling sick with crushing headaches, stomach cramps and vomiting. Some coughed up blood. Meanwhile, the zinc works churned along -- the plant wasn't ordered shut until Sunday. That night, a drizzly rain began to fall, slowly dispersing the fog.

Several days passed before the scope of the tragedy was known, and even then it didn't dominate the news. The Donora Herald-American found front-page space for the polls on the Dewey-Truman presidential race, and the Pittsburgh Press gave the smog deaths equal billing with a prison breakout.

Those who died ranged in age from 52 to 85, and all of them had suffered from respiratory ailments before the cloud formed. None of the victims' families still live here, local officials said.

Tonight, for the first time since the disaster, sponsors say, the dead will be publicly hailed during a memorial Mass at Our Lady of the Valley Church. Marcia Spink, a ranking air-quality official from the EPA's Philadelphia office, is scheduled to speak about the disaster during a ceremony to be attended by numerous state and local authorities.

For this town, set in a horseshoe bend of the Monongahela River, the tragedy was in many ways the beginning of the end. The zinc works reopened but shut for good in 1957, the first in a series of mill closures that decimated the valley economy. For years, no one wanted to hear about "The Donora Smog," thinking it a black mark on the community.

"A lot of people blame it for the mill moving out," said Justin Shawley, 17, a high school senior who worked to have a historical marker about the smog placed here in 1995. "People just sort of put it in the back of their minds all these years, tried to forget about it."

But for him, Shawley said, the smog is part of his heritage, a debacle that spawned a great national good. Sometimes he stares at the site of the old zinc works and the mountainside beyond, a landscape given to shrouding autumn mists.

"Some mornings," Shawley said, "you'll notice the fog's a little thicker."

October 28, 1998

 

 

DEADLY SMOG 50 YEARS AGO IN DONORA SPURRED CLEAN AIR MOVEMENT

from
CNN Interactive

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Fifty years ago, fog trapped acid fumes over a mill town. Within a day, some elderly people were gasping for breath. A day later, nauseated patients crowded two hospitals. By the third day, people in Donora were dying.

Before the acrid smog dissolved, it would kill 17 people -- the first known American deaths from air pollution.

The tragedy in the Monongahela River town of Donora in October 1948 would become a national symbol, cited again and again as proof that pollution can kill.

This town of 7,500 plans a service Wednesday to memorialize the victims who gave life to the clean air movement. "The Donora event, coupled with some similar disasters, had a cumulative effect that led ultimately to the Clean Air Act," Frank O'Donnell, executive director of the Clean Air Trust in Washington, D.C., said Monday.

Smoke and fumes from the American Steel and Wire Co. zinc works and iron works that dominated Donora's landscape were a fact of life in the town 28 miles south of Pittsburgh "The people who worked there said, 'That smoke puts bread on my table," said Norma Ross Todd, a longtime Donora resident and a curator for its historical society.

The entire Pittsburgh area was foggy that week in 1948, and a weather phenomenon called an inversion -- in which a cold air mass traps warm air near the ground -- set in.

On Friday, Oct. 28, Donorans realized that their fog was poisoned: Sulfur dioxide emissions from the zinc works had mixed with the fog to form a sulfuric acid mist.

By the next day, patients with breathing problems, headaches, abdominal pains or nausea had crowded into hospitals. The basement room at the community center had become a temporary morgue.

On Sunday, town officials had shut down the city, even halting ambulances because the drivers could not see. Volunteer firefighter Bill Schempp recalls carrying a 130-pound tank of oxygen from house to house, helping a dozen people with respiratory problems.

At each address, he found someone struggling for air. "They were wheezing a little, and others just weren't able to get their breath," said Schempp, now 81. He gave each one a couple of whiffs of oxygen and then had to go to the next address. Schempp never learned how many survived.

The community's phone lines were so jammed that Sunday that people trying to check on their relatives in Donora could not get through. By 6 p.m., the zinc works were closed. Rain helped wash the air, and the plant reopened Monday.

In addition to the 17 people killed, at least two more people died later from its effects. About 6,000 people -- half Donora's population -- were temporarily sickened.

U.S. Steel eventually paid out-of-court settlements ranging from $1,000 to $30,000, said Thomas Ferrall, U.S. Steel Group spokesman. Within 20 years, both mills were closed.

The U.S. Public Health Service investigated, placing air monitors with revolving arms to collect air samples all over town, and blamed the zinc works.

The Donora tragedy and other smog problems provoked Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine to hold congressional hearings that led to the Clean Air Act in 1970.

"Throughout all the efforts, Donora was always quoted as evidence that this is truly a problem," said O'Donnell.

October 27, 1998

 

 

DONORA DISASTER WAS CRUCIBLE FOR CLEAN AIR

By
W. Michael McCabe
Regional Administrator
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

PHILADELPHIA -- The following statement was released today by W. Michael McCabe, Regional Administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

Before there was an Environmental Protection Agency, before there was an Earth Day, before Rachel Carson wrote "Silent Spring," there was Donora.

Donora is a small industrial town south of Pittsburgh which experienced this nation's worst pollution disaster 50 years ago, before any of our major environmental laws were written.On the evening of October 26, 1948, the people of that working class community went to bed not knowing that a suffocating cloud of industrial gases and dust would descend upon them like some biblical plague during the night.

Twenty residents died and half the town's population -- 7,000 people – were hospitalized over the next five days with difficulty breathing. The cloud, a poisonous mix of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and metal dust, came from the smokestacks of the local zinc smelter where most of the town worked.

The Donora tragedy shocked the nation and marked a turning point in our complacency about industrial pollution and its effect on our health. Donora made the survival of area residents, not to mention the economic revival of the Pittsburgh area, an imperative.

This Wednesday, 50 years later, a memorial service at Our Lady of the Valley church will honor the innocent victims of the Donora Smog.

This memorial serves the memory of those who lost their lives by affirming the lessons learned and by celebrating the progress made in cleaning our air nationwide. The Monongahela River mill town that taught the world that pollution kills has become an icon for clean air.

Nearby Pittsburgh has long had to live with the stigma of being called the "smoky city." Newspaper editorials dating back to the mid-19th century decried the foul sooty air belching from iron and steel industry smokestacks and pressed for government action to control pollution.

Ordinances limiting smoke in the city were twice enacted at the turn of the century, but were later invalidated by the courts. Street lights were lit during the day to cut through the smoke until after World War II, when true enforcement of a 1941 smoke control ordinance began.

In 1945, anticipating the health problems from filthy air, newly elected Pittsburgh Mayor David Lawrence and financier Richard King Mellon, head of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, pledged cleaner air as part of the "Renaissance" they envisioned for the city. A decade later, coal burning for home heating was outlawed and clean natural gas was piped to all homes. Industry began screening its emissions. And diesel engines replaced coal-fired locomotives and river boats by 1952.

By 1955, Pittsburgh's heavy smoke had cleared, its visible emissions reduced by nearly 97 percent. Delegations journeyed from far and wide to marvel at how it was done. Other industrial cities like St. Louis and Cincinnati, seeing the success of the Pittsburgh area, also took drastic steps to scrub their air and polish their national image. The results were equally remarkable.

As a result of civic action, Americans could now see, smell and, in fact, taste the improvements in their air. They would not settle for less. And in 1963, Congress passed the first federal Clean Air Act, then amended it in 1970 to give it teeth. States were now required to come up with plans for reducing pollution to meet federal clean air standards.

Since the passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act, we have removed 98 percent of lead from the air, 79 percent of soot, 41 percent of sulfur dioxide, 28 percent of carbon monoxide, and 25 percent of the smog soup now called ozone.

We've come a long way since Donora, but our work is not done. America no longer has black skies or belching smokestacks. Today's air quality problems are more insidious. We now understand how air pollution blows across state lines, how nitrogen oxide emissions from a coal-fired power plant in the Midwest can cause unhealthy levels of ozone smog for children living in the Northeast.

Ground-level ozone -- today's smog -- is still with us, and so is its associated health problems. An estimated 10 to 20 percent of all respiratory-related hospital visits in the Northeast can be attributed to ozone pollution. Cases of death among children from asthma have reached alarming levels and are on the rise.

Over the past year and a half, EPA has taken several important steps to keep the momentum moving forward. In July 1997, to better protect public health, EPA tightened the ozone standard and set a new standard for fine particles. Last month, the agency required 22 states and the District of Columbia to reduce their smog-causing nitrogen oxide emissions by 28 percent by the year 2003 -- that's 1.1 million tons.

Compliance with this new requirement means that 31 million Americans can breathe air that meets the nation's new health standard for ozone.

Whether it would have saved 20 lives in Donora in 1948, or will improve 31 million lives in the Northeast in 1998, it is clear that protecting air quality has become a healthy imperative. Special interests are trying to undo our improved air quality standards.

We may never return to the disastrous conditions of Donora, but we need to keep up the momentum to get clean, breathable air.

We can't live without it.

October 26, 1998

 

 

DONORA'S KILLER SMOG NOTED AT 50

By
Lynne Glover
TRIBUNE-REVIEW

In house after house, Bill Schempp placed the mask over the faces of neighbors who were wheezing and gasping for air. He'd give them a little oxygen from the tank, then stop.

They'd start to wheeze again, and the firefighter would give them a bit more. But eventually, it was time to move to the next home in Donora, Washington County, to relieve, at least temporarily, the labored breathing of those worst affected by the air pollution that enveloped the town.

"I'm dying, and you're taking my air from me," Schempp, now 81, recalls being told.

Fifty years ago this week, a killer smog created by unchecked industrial emissions and stagnant air conditions filled the then-thriving mill town in the Mon Valley.

Newspapers reported that 21 people died over two days as a direct result of the smog, and more than a third of the town's population, or about 6,000 people, became ill or were hospitalized.

Victims of the Donora smog will be remembered during a simple memorial service on Wednesday. A representative of the federal Environmental Protection Agency will be the guest speaker - significant because of the tragedy's role in shaping today's environmental laws.

"The Donora incident was the dot on the exclamation point on the cry for cleaner air," EPA spokeswoman Ruth Podems said.

Patients with breathing troubles during those last days of October 1948 spilled from examining rooms into corridors at the nearby Monongahela Memorial and Charleroi-Monessen hospitals. The town's community center became an emergency medical station - and temporary morgue.

"This was a great tragedy," said Thomas Ferrall, a spokesman for the U.S. Steel Group of USX Corp. "Environmental control technology that became the norm in our industry didn't exist in 1948."

Emissions from a U.S. Steel Group subsidiary, American Steel & Wire Co., coupled with weather conditions, are the widely accepted causes for the deadly smog. Toxic emissions from the American Steel & Wire's Zinc Works mixed with fog that hung low in the town and lingered because of a common, though unusually long, temperature inversion.

Typically inversions, in which the ground temperature is warmer than the air above, create fogs and last only a few hours. But because there was virtually no wind in the valley, the heavily polluted air remained trapped in the fog for about five days.

"You can't imagine what it was like. You couldn't see your hand in front of your face," said Schempp. The thick, white smoke with its faint odor was like "something out of this world," he said.

During the height of the emergency, the Donora Fire Department was besieged with frantic calls. Soon, help arrived from other communities. The Pitcairn Fire Department arrived with an ambulance, and the McKeesport and Rosedale fire departments loaned inhalators.

Schempp remembers the horrendous time he and a fellow firefighter had attempting to navigate their way on foot through the smoggy Donora streets as they toted 135-pound tanks of oxygen.

For five days, the smog inversion sat over Donora. Newspapers reported that 21 people died over two days.

"It took us at least one hour to go to someone's home only five blocks away," he said. "We had to feel our way along the fence."

With a limited supply, the firefighters could only spare each victim a small amount of oxygen.

Donora is legendary in the annals of environmental history. The incident drew national attention through radio broadcasts at the time, and is discussed today in elementary school science classes and featured in college textbooks.

CLOSER LOOK AT AIR POLLUTION

For all of its infamy, the tragedy that has been described as the "Hiroshima of air pollution" provided the first real piece of scientific evidence in this country that pollution kills.

"It was the first time that anyone looked closely at air pollution and its health effects," said Podems. "It was the first time there was any organized effort to document what happens when air pollutants go above a certain level."

"The Donora smog played a significant role in sparking the environmental movement," said Ken Wolensky, a historian with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in Harrisburg. It marked the beginning of government stepping in to examine just what industrial pollution might be doing to people.

At the time, Donora residents didn't know what was happening. "It was something out of this world," Schempp said.

And so life in Donora went on.

The Friday night Halloween parade through town went on as planned. Saturday afternoon's high school football game was played. And the four-mile long mill, which employed 6,500 workers at its peak, continued making zinc, spewing out sulfurous fumes, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and heavy metal dusts.

The football game played that weekend may have been one of the greatest games never seen. Although the field was near the top of the hill, where the smog wasn't quite as dense, spectators still could barely see the field. But they could hear the referees' whistles blow.

And they could also hear the announcer call for the children of Bernardo DiSanzi to return home immediately. "I found out later that their dad died," recalled Mayor John Lignelli, 77, who attended the game.

Houseplants and family pets died. And thousands of people suffered severe abdominal cramps, splitting headaches, nausea and vomiting. Strong men and women with no previous health problems were struck down, doctors said, their respiratory systems paralyzed. Elderly people who already had respiratory ailments found themselves choking and coughing up blood.

Autopsy reports of many of those who died indicated "acute changes in the lungs." The victims' ages ranged from 52 to 85.

The town burgess ultimately declared a state of emergency in the town of nearly 14,000. Doctors advised those with respiratory problems to leave town. By Saturday night, however, the heavily congested roads and poor visibility made evacuation impossible.

Those unable to leave were ordered to stay indoors and to make sure their windows and doors remained closed.

And it wasn't until 6 a.m. Sunday that the zinc works was shut down as a precautionary measure.

"The tragic thing was that the residents didn't know what was happening," said Chuck Carson, vice president of environmental affairs for U.S. Steel. "It was only after the fact that they realized 20 people died. Only then did they say, `Boy, we really had a problem.'"

Pollution was a way of life back then.

Schempp recalled steamboats in the river would regularly blow their horns in order to alert other river traffic of their presence. He said it wasn't unusual for boats to collide because there was so much smoke they couldn't see each other.

"We lived in it. We accepted it," Schempp said of the pollution. He worked in the mill for more than three years and recalls having black ankles when he came home from work. "It was our normal way of life."

But that would change.

"It was on account of what happened here that opened the eyes of the federal government that they needed to do something. Donora should take credit for that," said Lignelli.

RESEARCH BILL

Donora, in fact, can take only part of the credit for an air pollution research bill that was passed in 1955. This was the first federal legislation that mandated the U.S. Public Health Service to conduct research on air pollution effects. It was passed after a 1952 pollution incident in London where more than 1,000 people died.

Donora also helped set the stage for the most ambitious federal environmental law, the Clean Air Act of 1970, which required states to meet and enforce new federal clean-air standards that limited emissions of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter and other toxins.

Because of the strict government regulations now in place, Lignelli said he would welcome industry back to Donora, particularly the new Sun Coke Co. plant that many residents in the Hazelwood section of Pittsburgh are currently fighting.

"With all the regulations they have now, you probably would not get any smog. For as strict as they are with the Clean Air Act and with all the modern technology that we have today, the air would not bother you at all," said Lignelli.

He added that the Hazelwood residents who point to Donora as a reason to not build the coke plant "are so off base it is pathetic."

For the record, American Steel & Wire Co. formally denied responsibility for the Donora smog, saying it was an "act of God." Still, the company settled hundreds of claims filed by residents of Donora and its downwind neighbor, Webster.

According to U.S. Steel's Ferrall, the out-of-court settlements ranged from $1,000 to $30,000. The 1948 dollar is worth about $7 today, he noted. Many people believe that such an environmental disaster could not happen today.

Harry Klodowski, an environmental attorney who runs a Pittsburgh law firm, said it would be "pretty damn unlikely" that another Donora-like event could occur.

"Factories are not like that anymore," he said. "Nobody has the permission to discharge the kinds of things they were discharging in the 1940s. The regulatory system in place does seem to be working to prevent that kind of thing."

During the Donora smog, emissions of sulfur dioxide were estimated to be somewhere around 1,500 to 5,500 micrograms per cubic meter, said Carson. This is much higher, he noted, than the 80 micrograms per cubic meter average currently mandated by the Clean Air Act.

"We know a lot more now," said Carson. "We have a much sounder scientific basis and much better control systems."

The shutdown of the Donora Zinc Works in 1957, followed by the closure of the entire Steel & Wire Co. operation a decade later, was a devastating blow to the Donora economy.

The population today has dwindled to about 5,000, including some lifelong residents who know nothing about the Donora Smog of 1948. "Never heard of it," said one man strolling through the town.

October 25, 1998

 

 

1948 Killer Smog Triggered Pollution Control

"Death Smog--Get Out of Town" read the newspaper headline in 1948 in Donora, a small Pennsylvania town 37 miles south of Pittsburgh. On October 29, smog from a temperature inversion and factory smoke caused one of America's greatest environmental disasters.

Until that October, the smoke from the Donora Zinc Works and American Steel & Wire, both run by U.S. Steel Corp., was considered nothing more than a daily nuisance. Residents accepted it because the plants employed thousands. On October 29, as usual, thick yellow smog hid the town, the cars on the road, and even the players in a baseball game. But over the next several days, sulphurous smog killed 20 people and sickened 40 percent of the population.

Other similar events began to occur. In 1953, 200 people died in New York City, felled by pollution. At this time, America's factories and mills were humming along at peak capacity, bringing jobs and prosperity to towns across the country, but sometimes with deadly environmental consequences.

Donora's deadly smog had barely lifted when the borough, state Department of Health, United Steelworkers and the U.S. Public Health Service all launched investigations. The inquiries were the first organized effort in the United States to document the health effects of pollution. The tragedy in the tiny mill town of Donora would soon give birth to the nation's first air quality standards.

In 1955, the state passed the Clean Air Act, the first Pennsylvania law to control air pollution. The first federal law against air pollution was passed 1955. The zinc works closed in 1956. Beginning in 1963, a series of federal laws shifted federal policy to a nationalized framework for air pollution regulation from support of state and local initiatives.

In 1970, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, which established the primary federal authority for national ambient air quality standards, industrial emission permits and restrictions on motor vehicle emissions. The effect of the smog on Donora was a key issue in congressional debates, leading to passage of the law. The Environmental Protection Agency, created in December of the same year, was designated to administer the Act

The expansion of federal authority occurred as a few leading states and cities began to toughen their air control regulations. Some industries sought federal laws in order to provide consistent requirements across the county. This, combined with the public concern, helped lead to stronger national laws in air pollution.

Today, Donora is enjoying a rebirth, both in new industries and in cleaner air. A diversified industrial park hosts 24 industries, mostly in fabrication, that employ 2,500 people. The companies include Elliott, which makes parts for battleships, and Polycrom Hustman, a plastics plant. Mayor John Lignelli pointed to the 5-year tax forgiveness policy that attracted these new industries. A recently enacted law extended the policy to 12 years.

The industrial park replaced the mill run by U.S. Steel Corporation, which shut down in the 60's. "I remember having to sweep off the porch three or four times a day to get rid of the soot that came out of that mill, Lignelli says. "Today, we do not have these problems. You can see across the river."

 

The Donora Fluoride Fog:
A Secret History of America's Worst Air Pollution Disaster

 

This article appears in the Fall 1998 Earth Island Journal
by Chris Bryson

 

The anniversary of the worst recorded industrial air pollution accident in US history - which occurred 50 years ago this October in Donora, Pennsylvania -will go virtually unmarked. The Donora incident, which killed 20 and left hundreds seriously injured and dying, was caused by fluoride emissions from the Donora Zinc Works and steel plants owned by the US Steel Corporation.

In the aftermath of the accident, US Steel conspired with US Public Health Service (PHS) officials to cover up the role fluoride played in the tragedy. This charge comes from Philip Sadtler, a top industrial chemical consultant who conducted his own research at the scene of the disaster.

Fifty years later, Earth Island Journal has learned, vital records of the Donora investigation are missing from PHS archives. Fifty years later, US Steel continues to block access to their records of the Donora disaster, including a crucial air chemical analysis taken on the final night of the tragedy.

The "Donora Death Fog"

Horror visited the US Steel company-town of Donora on Halloween night, 1948, when a temperature inversion descended on the town. Fumes from US Steel's smelting plants blanketed the town for four days, and crept murderously into the citizens' homes. If the smog had lasted another evening "the casualty list would have been 1,000 instead of 20," said local doctor William Rongaus at the time. Later investigations by Rongaus and others indicated that one-third of the town's 14,000 residents were affected by the smog. Hundreds of residents were evacuated or hospitalized. A decade later, Donora's mortality rate remained significantly higher than neighboring areas.

The "Donora Death Fog", as it became known, spawned numerous angry lawsuits and the first calls for national legislation to protect the public from industrial air pollution.

A PHS report released in 1949 reported that "no single substance" was responsible for the Donora deaths and laid major blame for the tragedy on the temperature inversion. But according to industry consultant Philip Sadtler, in an interview taped shortly before his 1996 death, that report was a whitewash. "It was murder," said Sadtler about Donora. "The directors of US Steel should have gone to jail for killing people." Sadtler charged that the PHS report helped US Steel escape liability for the deaths and spared a host of fluoride- emitting industries the expense of having to control their toxic emissions. (A class-action lawsuit by Donora victims families was later settled out of court.)

In 1948, Sadtler was perhaps the nation's leading expert on fluorine pollution. He had gathered evidence for plaintiffs across the country, including an investigation of the Manhattan Project and the DuPont company's fluoride pollution of New Jersey farmland during World War II [see "Fluoride and the A-Bomb", 1997-98 EIJ].

For giant fluoride emitters such as US Steel and the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa), the cost of a national fluoride clean-up "would certainly have been in the billions," said Sadtler. So concealing the true cause of the Donora accident was vital. "It would have complicated things enormously for them if the public had been alerted to [the dangers of] fluoride."

A 50-Year Cover-up

US industry was well-placed to orchestrate a whitewash of the Donora investigation. The PHS was then a part of the Federal Security Agency. The FSA, in turn, was headed by Oscar R. Ewing, a former top lawyer for Alcoa. Neither his old industry connections, nor the fact that Alcoa had been facing lawsuits around the country for its wartime airborne fluoride pollution was mentioned in Ewing's introduction to the official report on Donora.

Sadtler remembers seeing a PHS van in Donora conducting air testing after the disaster. "I looked in and the chemist said, 'Phil, come on in.' Very friendly. He says, 'I know you are right, but I am not allowed to say so.' He must have been influenced by US Steel."

Sadtler blamed fluoride for the Donora disaster in an account published in the December 13, 1948 issue of Chemical and Engineering News. He reported fluorine blood levels of dead and hospitalized citizens to be 12 to 25 times above normal, with "primary symptoms of acute fluorine poisoning, dyspnea (distressed breathing similar to asthma) ... found in hundreds of cases." He recommended that, "Changes should be made in suspect processes to prevent emission of fluorine-containing fumes."

Industry moved quickly to silence Sadtler, who had been a contributor to Chemical and Engineering News for many years. (C&EN is published by the American Chemical Society.) "I had a call from the editor that I was not to send them any more [articles]," Sadtler said. The editor told Sadtler that the head of the Alcoa and the US Steel-funded Mellon Institute, Dr. [first name] Weidline (who also had served as a director of the American Chemical Society) "went to Washington and told [the magazine's editors] that they were not to publish any more of what I wrote," Sadtler said.

Looking Back on Donora

Today, 50 years later, researchers examining the Donora disaster face two troubling obstacle: (1) vital records are missing from the PHS archives and (2) US Steel's records are closed to reporters, researchers and investigators. In her 1994 doctoral dissertation ("The Death-Dealing Smog Over Donora, Pennsylvania: Industrial Air Pollution, Public Health Policy and the Politics of Expertise, 1948-1949"), Lynne Page Snyder of the University of Pennsylvania, described the response to the disaster.

The following excerpts were published in the Spring 1994 issue of the Environmental History Review.

"Pollution from the Donora Zinc Works smelting operation and other sources containing sulfur, carbon monoxide and heavy metal dusts, was trapped by weather conditions in the narrow river valley in and around Donora and neighboring Webster.

"Air pollution problems were recognized from the facility as early as 1918, when the plant owner paid off the legal claims for causing pollution that affected the health of nearby residents.

"In the 1920s, residents and farmers in Webster took legal action again against the company for loss of crops and livestock. Regular sampling of the air was begun in 1926 and stopped in 1935."

From local accounts of the time, Snyder provided this description of the 1948 disaster. "By Friday evening (October 2), local residents were crowding into nearby hospitals and dozens of calls were made to the area's eight physicians. While Fire Department volunteers administered oxygen to those unable to breathe, Board of Health member Dr. William Rongaus led an ambulance by foot through darkened streets to ferry the dead and dying to hospitals or on to a temporary morgue.

"On Rongaus' advice, those with chronic heart or respiratory ailments began to leave town late Friday evening, but before noon on Saturday, 11 people died. "Conditions had not improved by Saturday night, and with roads congested by smog and traffic, evacuation became impossible. The company operating the Donora Zinc Works finally ordered the plant shut down at 6 a.m. Sunday morning. By mid-day Sunday, rain had dispersed the smog.

"Pittsburgh itself escaped the episode primarily because it had just begun to enforce a smoke control ordinance and was cutting back on the use of bituminous coal as a fuel source. The Donora Smog gained national attention when Walter Winchell broadcast news of the disaster on his national radio show.

"The Pennsylvania Department of Health, United Steelworkers, Donora's Borough Council and the US Public Health Service all participated in the investigation of the air pollution incident. The investigation was the first time there was an organized effort to document the health impacts of air pollution in the United States. Commenting on the studies of the incident, the Monessen Daily Independent wrote that damage from air pollution from the Zinc Works was 'something no scientific investigation is necessary to prove. All you need is a pair of reasonably good eyes.'

"Before the Donora smog, neither manufacturers nor public health professionals considered air pollution an urgent issue. At the annual meeting of the Smoke Prevention Association in May 1949, a leading industrial physician and consultant to insurance companies dismissed air pollution as a threat, except 'on rare occasions [when] Mother Nature has played us false.''

"The studies of the Donora Smog did not fix blame and could not document levels of pollution beyond workplace limits set at the time. The Public Health Service recommended a warning system tied to weather forecasts and an air sampling system be installed to avoid future incidents. The lessons learned at Donora resulted in the passage of the 1955 Clean Air Act and began modern air pollution control efforts in the Commonwealth.

Snyder learned that US Steel had conducted an air analysis on the final night of the smog. But despite her numerous requests for the Donora records, Snyder recalls, US Steel officials finally informed her that they didn't "have anything for me." Equally frustrating to Snyder was the missing PHS records. At the time, Donora was the largest environmental investigation the government agency ever had mounted. "The kinds of papers I would expect to find are the correspondence files, the original and carbon copies of responses sent out, typed-up site visits, typed-up telephone conversations, maps, rough drafts of reports, photos," Snyder explained. But all these records have vanished.

"You have to suspect the worst. Not only of US Steel, but of the Public Health Service," Snyder says. Now herself a PHS historian, she concludes of the Donora records, "Someone may have decided they were too hot to handle and got rid of them. I'm open to that prospect."

Transcripts of Philip Sadtler's historic full interview are available from Earth Island Journal.

-------------------------------

Chris Bryson is a New York-based investigative reporter and co-author with Joel Griffiths of Fluoride and the A-Bomb (Winter 97-98 EIJ).This report was compiled with research assistance by Ellie Rudolph

-------------------------------

Death in Donora

I have felt the fog in my throat --
The misty hand of Death caress my face;
I have wrestled with a frightful foe
Who strangled me with wisps of gray fog-lace.
Now in my eyes since I have died.
The bleak, bare hills rise in stupid might
With scars of its slavery imbedded deep;
And the people still live -- still live -- in the poisonous night.

Folklorist Dan G. Hoffman reported collecting the ballad "Death in Donora" from area resident John P. Clark

 

Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Cleaner air is legacy left by Donora's killer 1948 smog

Thursday, October 29, 1998

By David Templeton, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Until October 1948, smoke belching from industrial plants in Donora and elsewhere was considered little more than a daily nuisance. Yes, it turned yards and hillsides barren. For sure, it sometimes made driving difficult. And, certainly, homeowners often had to repaint their houses to counteract the corrosive smoke.

But considering that U.S. Steel Corp.'s Donora Zinc Works and its American Steel &

 

 

This is what Donora looked like at noon on Oct. 29, 1948, as a deadly smog created by a temperature inversion and industrial plant emissions enveloped the town.

Wire plant employed thousands, Mon Valley residents were willing to live immersed in the billowing yellow smoke.

"It's like today, with pollution from cars," said Bill Schempp, an 81-year-old resident of the Washington County town. "That's the way it was here. It was a normal way of life."

Until this day 50 years ago, when thick smog created from a temperature inversion and factory smoke blotted out Donora. Over several days, it killed 20 people and sickened 6,000 in one of America's greatest environmental disasters.

Blinding smog opened people's eyes to the mortal dangers of air pollution. It gave rise to local, regional, state and national laws to reduce and control factory smoke and culminated with the nation's Clean Air Act of 1970.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the killer smog, Donora residents and local, state and federal officials held a service yesterday at Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church in Donora to remember those who died and acknowledge how their sacrifice brought improvements to the air we now breathe.

Marcia Spink, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's associate director for air programs in Region III based in Philadelphia, gave the keynote address on "the debt of gratitude that the people of the United States owe Donora and the event that led to the federal Clean Air Act of 1970.

"It is definitely tied to the ability of this country to wake up and realize that air pollution isn't just a nuisance but something that makes things so dirty that it can kill people," she said.

 

 

Near the end of October 1948, a temperature inversion put a lid on the Mon Valley, trapping smoke spewing from zinc mill and steel mill smokestacks. It settled like dishwater in Donora and Webster, situated across the Mon River in Westmoreland County.

 

In 1948, the hillside in Gilmore Cemetery is bare of vegetation and badly eroded, conditions blamed on the emissions of the Donora Zinc Works at bottom of hill.

 

Smog laden with sulfur dioxide from the zinc works was something Donora residents had become used to. As it thickened, residents went about their normal routines. On Oct. 29, the smog hid players from the crowd at a high school football game, and later, it became too thick to drive. That evening, people walking outside couldn't see their hands in front of their faces.

Still, few had any sense of the danger encircling them.

Doctors recommended that people with breathing problems leave town, but driving was prohibited because of the smog. Evacuation became impossible. As elderly residents began dying, town officials unable to summon help opened a makeshift morgue.

Still, the zinc works continued operating day and night, sending more smoke into Donora. At 6 a.m. Sunday, facing growing problems, U.S. Steel finally shut down the plant. By then it was too late to prevent disaster. Twenty people were dead, 6,000 were sickened. And the world was watching.

 

Lost in the haze

The Donora Zinc Works and the American Steel & Wire Co. plant, both operated by U.S. Steel Corp. and situated side-by-side along the Monongahela River bank, had long histories of pumping smoke into the skies above the small town 37 miles south of Pittsburgh.

"The Death-Dealing Smog over Donora, Pennsylvania: Industrial Air Pollution, Public Health Policy and the Politics of Expertise, 1948-1949," written by Lynn Page Snyder of the University of Pennsylvania, describes the disaster and its consequences.

Air pollution problems at the zinc works were recognized as early as 1918, when the plant owner paid legal claims for pollution that affected the health of nearby residents. In the 1920s, residents and farmers in nearby Webster filed suit against the company for killing crops and livestock. As a result, air sampling was conducted from 1929 through 1936. But until 1948, smoke was generally considered a hassle rather than a health threat.

Fifty years ago today, Donora Mayor John "Chummy" Lignelli was among those at the football game. The smog was growing worse, but no one registered any fear, he said.

"You couldn't identify the ballplayers. You could see movement on the field, but you didn't know who had the ball and what was going on. But we stayed and watched."

Sometimes, balls that were kicked or punted were lost in the haze, not to be found. Alice Capone, a Donora teacher at the time, was in charge of the concession stand at the game.

"I didn't realize the seriousness of it, but I thought it would affect the crowd at the football game," she said. "We had 50 pounds of hot dogs. I was worried about the hot dogs, the pop, buns and candy [if no one showed up.]"

Monongahela defeated Donora in the smog bowl. During the game, one family was summoned home because of an emergency. It turned out that the father had died from the pollution. By noon Saturday, 11 people already had succumbed to the smoke. But people still didn't realize the danger.

"I recall sitting outside the old borough building on a bench with the fire chief. A delivery truck from Pittsburgh comes by and they all had respirators on," Lignelli said. "We asked them why they were wearing respirators. They said because the air is bad. I said, 'We don't have a problem here.' "

Schempp, a longtime Donora fireman, and his wife, Gladys, were attending a party on the ridge about two miles from Donora that Saturday. When they returned that evening, the ridge road was almost enveloped in smog.

"It was like going into a sink hole," said Schempp.

As their car creeped home, the couple noticed dim lights glowing near their house. They later realized the lights marked the site of the makeshift morgue.

"The air was yellow and so full of sulfur," Mrs. Schempp said. "It burned my eyes so badly that I had tears. My eyes were burning like fire."

When fire bells rang that evening, Schempp and other firemen learned that they were to take oxygen to residents struggling to breathe. Schempp said he had to feel his way along buildings and fences, go up the steps of each house and strain to make out the house number. Going several blocks took 45 minutes.

"If you chewed hard enough, you could swallow it," he said. "It almost got to the point where it was claustrophobic, it was so dense and thick. You couldn't see a thing. You had to get right up to the door and guess where you were.

"It sounds dramatic, but without exaggeration, that's the way it was."

Finding the right address, Schempp could only give the struggling person a few shots of oxygen before departing to find the next address.

"It almost broke my heart to leave," he said. "It was almost a terrible experience because it meant that you had to walk out of a house where people needed help."

Eventually, doctors decided it was too dangerous for firemen to cart oxygen through the smog. Everyone went to their homes to wait for the air to clear.

The Schempp's said they weren't overly concerned about the smog, until newspapers explained that 20 people were dead and thousands were sick.

"I remember the headline, 'Death Smog,' " Mrs. Schempp said.

 

'Get out of town'

For days, doctors including William Rongaus and his brother, Walter, worked around the clock to treat stricken citizens. Many families fled Donora when it was possible to leave but returned when they discovered heavy smog in Pittsburgh and elsewhere.

"I told them to get out of town," William Rongaus said in a 1995 interview. "People were dying while I was treating them. I called it murder from the mill. I was mad, but where was I going to go for help?"

The world's eyes and ears became focused on Donora's plight. Famed broadcaster Walter Winchell reported news about Donora on his show and described the impact of the killer smog.

In his lawsuit against American Steel & Wire for the death of his elderly wife, Suzanne, John Gnora described how his wife gasped and coughed for hours before she died.

"She was weak," he said. "That smoke was awful bad."

At 6 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 30, the Donora Zinc Works superintendent finally ordered the mill shut down because of the smog. Rain arrived later that day and rinsed the air of pollutants. The next day, the zinc works resumed production.

 

 

Bill Schempp, left, and Donora Mayor John Lignelli stand at the historical marker recognizing the Donora Smog of l948. (Robert J. Pavuchak, Post-Gazette)

Soon after the smog dissipated, the state Department of Health, the United Steelworkers, Donora Borough Council and the U.S. Public Health Service launched investigations. It marked the first time that there was an organized effort to document health impacts of air pollution in the United States, Snyder noted in her paper.

Quoting the Monessen Daily Independent, she said the impact of air pollution from the zinc works was "something no scientific investigation is necessary to prove. All you need is a pair of reasonably good eyes."

The investigations prompted Public Health Service recommendations for a warning system tied to weather forecasts and air sampling. In 1955, the state passed the Clean Air Act, the first law to control air pollution, in direct response to Donora.

The zinc works closed in 1956. When the U.S. Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, the impact of smog on Donora was a key issue in congressional debates.

In 1995, Donora resident Justin Shawley, now 17, researched the Donora Smog and succeeded in having the state Historical and Museum Commission approve a historical marker that was placed at the Donora Public Library.

On Oct. 6, the state House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution, introduced by State Rep. Peter J. Daley, D-California, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Donora Smog.

"It is fitting that we, as a state, recognize this unfortunate occurrence and its victims," Daley said.

 

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