A Darkness in Donora

When smog killed 20 people in a Pennsylvania mill town in 1948, the clean air movement got its start

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Yet the steel mill and the zinc works continued to operate, stacks steadily spewing more fumes into the loaded atmosphere. On Sunday morning, on orders from the parent company, U.S. Steel, the zinc works closed down. While expressing sympathy for the victims, the superintendent disclaimed responsibility, declaring that the zinc works had been safely using the same procedures since 1915.

Thanks to everyone from my once-skeptical rewrite man to national newscasters, Donora now received so much attention that telephone lines were swamped. Over the next months, state and federal investigators interviewed every third household, set up air-quality monitoring sites, checked medical records and vital statistics, and brought in meteorological and biological research teams. In 1949, the U.S. Public Health Service issued a 173-page report, "Air Pollution in Donora, Pa.: Epidemiology of the Unusual Smog Episode of October 1948."

The report counted 5,910 people affected by the smog but failed to name a definite culprit. Donora's topography and a freakish weather pattern were primarily blamed. The town sits on a horseshoe bend in the Monongahela, with steep hills at its back and even steeper ones across the river. Fumes were normally swept out by the prevailing westerly winds. In October 1948, a layer of cold air hung over the valley, trapping the warmer, fume-laden air beneath, a phenomenon called a temperature inversion.

The report satisfied few. Critics noted that the permissible emission levels were for healthy young workers in the plants, not older or ill persons in the community; the dead had all been age 52 or over, most with asthma or heart or lung problems. Absolving the zinc works particularly outraged many; you didn't need science to identify the culprit, a local newspaper declared, "just a pair of reasonably good eyes." Lawsuits (later settled without assessing blame) were filed against American Steel & Wire; citizens' groups grew up to demand stiffer smog regulation.

In 1950, President Harry Truman convened the first national air pollution conference, citing Donora as an example of the need. By present standards, its recommendations were tame, mostly calling for more research, but the precedent of a federal role had been set. In 1963, Congress passed the first Clean Air Act.

The skies are clear over Donora now. Gilmore Cemetery, once so devoid of vegetation that heavy rains often exposed caskets, is again green. The zinc plant closed in 1957, the steel mill a few years later. But the population has dwindled to 5,900, one-third over age 65. Industrial employment is only 1,100, down from 5,000 in the mill's heyday. Some folks still bitterly blame the air-quality movement for destroying the town.

Justin Shawley represents another view. This 18-year-old University of Pittsburgh freshman persuaded the state to erect a marker memorializing the Donora Smog. "It's wrong to try to ignore this moment," Shawley told me passionately. "That's obliterating the memory of those who died." Or as Marcie Spink says, "People who never heard of Donora owe this town a debt of gratitude"

By Edwin Kiester, Jr.


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