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Author Topic: The Donora Smog  (Read 1575 times)

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The EETicket Arachnid

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The Donora Smog
« on: March 13, 2009, 01:59:26 PM »
The Donora Smog
13 September 2008, 12:17 pm

The time around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century was arguably the time frame when the biggest and most dramatic changes were taking place in the way that the common American lived. Western Pennsylvania was no different in this respect, as young men began to leave the family farms searching for work in the newly industrialized cities that were cropping up on river banks all over the state. The metamorphosis from an agrarian society to an industrial power launched the U.S. into world prominence, and fattened the wallets of the industrialists that financed the movement.

Once the birth of this way of life was complete and the excitement of the revolution wore off, Pennsylvania was left with thousands upon thousands of workers whose whole existence revolved around keeping the machinery of progress humming, regardless of any inconvenience or hardship that this may cause them and their families. These men worked hard, smoked hard and drank hard. They became involved in their community and attended church with their families on Sundays. These men were the backbone of America.

Donora, Pennsylvania was a town that was populated with this type of men and their families. Nestled comfortably in a horseshoe shaped bend in the Monongehela River in eastern Washington County, Donora was not only an industrial town, but a sports town as well. Stan Musial was born in Donora in 1920, where he played high school ball with Ken Griffey Sr.’s father. Ken Sr. and Ken Griffey Jr. were also born in Donora. The town was equally football minded, and Donora was voted the second best high school team in the country in 1945.

Stan Musial’s father, Lukasz, worked at the American Steel and Wire Company. This company, along with the Donora Zinc Works, a Carnegie Steel Company plant, and the Matthew Woven Wire and Fence Company rounded out Donora’s major employers.

By the time that 1948 rolled around, Donora had attracted a primarily immigrant work force to the Monongehela Valley. While the men went to the mill everyday, some of the wives worked also, or they raised children and kept house. Undoubtedly it occurred to the people of the town that visibility often seemed poor, and that at times they would have to sweep soot off of their porches sometimes several times a day. Some days it was hard to see at all. Some may have noticed a lack of fish in the river here, and the fact that house paints deteriorated more quickly than was usual.

In late October of 1948 a weather phenomenon called a temperature inversion, which acts like a barrier against any lower air rising into the upper atmosphere occured in the "Mon Valley". All of the pollutants that we streaming out of the several smokestacks in town were being forced back to ground level and the poisonous air stagnated. On October 29th, a yellowish fog enveloped the town causing near zero visibility. But life went on as usual, and the good people of Donora went about their business.

On the following Saturday, doctors started receiving calls from people reporting respiratory distress in elderly residents and some of the ill. Then some of the younger residents began to have trouble breathing. Doctors, firemen, police and volunteers worked around the clock trying to tend to all of the needs of the sick. The local Clergy made their rounds offering Last Rites to those who were dying, or seemed close to it. Drug stores stayed open all night to help with the demand for supplies. Several of these helpful people complained about being hampered by the smog to the point that they were having difficulties finding specific houses.

After an emergency meeting of the Donora Board of Health with Red Cross officials, they struck an agreement with the Donora Zinc Works to shut down production of their smelters to reduce dramatically the plant emissions into the air. On Monday rain began to fall, and the skies around Donora cleared. The Donora Zinc Works resumed operations shortly thereafter.

In the short amount of time that the “Donora Smog” held sway, 20 people lost their lives. Hundreds remained ill for a time after. Estimates are that a full one third of the population of the town was hospitalized and/or treated for respiratory maladies. The Donora incident is what triggered the chain of events that led to the 1955 Clean Air Act, and served as a catalyst for most if not all of the legislation aimed at air and water quality since.

For all that Donora did for pollution control measures in the U.S. the town slowly declined like so many steel boom towns in the “rust belt”. The Donora Zinc Works and its parent company U.S. Steel were sued for a million dollars over the incident, but settled out of court at 250,000 dollars. The company never admitted any wrong doing on their part, and a shady investigation all but exonerated the companies involved. In 1996 an industry consultant named Philip Sadler admitted that "It was murder.... The directors of US Steel should have gone to jail for killing people."  In 1957 the Donora Zinc works was closed and by 1967 U.S. Steel had shut down all operations in Donora. Almost 6,000 jobs were lost.

Top photo: Donora Zinc works a seen from Gilmore Cemetery, 1948

Lower Photo: Donora photographed at noon, October 29, 1948 Both Pittsburgh Post Gazette Magazine

Although I had read about Donora long ago, a great deal of memory jogging and fact checking was provided by I encourage you to visit and learn more about this tragic event.

Source: The Absorbing Errand

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