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Working In These Times

Monday, Oct 27, 2014, 5:30 pm

Remembering the Deadly Donora Smog

BY Kari Lydersen

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Air pollution from the Donora Zinc Works covered the town for two days, killing 20 and hospitalizing thousands—eventually helping produce the first regulations to restrict air pollution.   Bethlehem Steel, Baltimore (Dave Hosford / Flickr)

DONORA, PA — Sixty-six years ago this week, a thick noxious cloud enveloped Donora, a steel mill town on a lush hillside above the Monongahela River 37 miles south of Pittsburgh. Residents were used to pollution from the town’s cluster of industries that formed the bedrock of the region’s economy making steel, wire and nails.

They were used to plumes of smoke billowing into the sky and seeing everything covered in red dust from the iron ore used to make steel, as Charles Stacey, a long-time resident, teacher and local historian, told In These Times on a visit in June.  

Stacey grew up by the river across from the Donora Zinc Works, where no vegetation grew because of the fumes.

“I didn’t see grass until I was 50,” he says. “Air pollution was a way of life in Donora. You put your hand out and you couldn’t see the tip of your fingers. You could trip off a curb because you couldn’t see. But usually by lunchtime, the wind would blow it away.”

On October 26, 1948, a Tuesday, the cloud did not move by lunchtime or by evening. The cloud didn’t lift the next day, or the next. The annual Halloween parade was held on Friday as usual, but you couldn’t see across the street. People struggled to breathe during the high school football game on Saturday.

Stacey, who was 16 at the time, described valiant firefighters going house to house checking on residents, carrying oxygen tanks, crawling and feeling their way along the streets they had grown up on because walking made it too difficult to see and breathe.

Investigations would later confirm that a temperature inversion, a layer of warm air hovering above the valley, was preventing the dissipation of air pollution from the mills—specifically from Donora Zinc Works, which produced a toxic blend of sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, fluoride and other compounds.

Officials at U.S. Steel Corp., owner of the mills and the zinc works, maintained that the situation was not caused by their operations. For several days, the company refused to shut down despite public pleas to do so. The zinc works finally halted operations on Sunday. After a rain fell soon afterwards, the air began to clear.

At least 20 deaths were attributed to the pollution, and up to 7,000 people fell ill or were hospitalized. The total death toll could be pegged at more than 70, according to some reports, by comparing normal mortality rates with rates in the month following. The incident became known as the Donora Smog.

“It took a while for the undertakers to bury all the people—we didn’t even have enough undertakers,” Stacey said.

Bodies were stored in the Donora Hotel, one of the town’s historic structures still standing on the same road as the Donora Smog Museum, opened in 2009 to keep alive the memory and lessons of the smog and to celebrate Donora’s steely persistence.

The smog was a wakeup call about the dangers of industrial air pollution. It sparked state investigation and legislation and also contributed to the first federal air pollution law in 1955 and the signing of the Clean Air Act in 1970.

The smog became the subject of national outrage and media attention. But Stacey noted that in Donora, many were reluctant to point their fingers at the steel and zinc works, which employed about 5,000 of the town’s 13,000 inhabitants.  

“Even after the smog, there were people unwilling to admit the mills had anything to do with it,” said Stacey. “They thought if the mills were blamed, they would shut down and Donora would lose its prosperity. People wanted to put this behind them and go back to their jobs.”

About 100 residents filed lawsuits against U.S. Steel, which were settled for a total of $256,000 in 1951. The company never admitted any responsibility for the incident.

Donora’s mills and zinc works ultimately did close in the 1950s and 1960s, early casualties of the decline of the U.S. steel industry that swept the nation by the 1980s.

“It’s been all downhill ever since,” said Stacey. Despite the environmental and health effects of the industry, he talked with nostalgia about the glory days when industry was humming.

“When Donora was at its peak, Friday was payday and the streets were jammed with people.” The local Mellon bank, he said, had the highest per capita savings of any Mellon branch in the U.S. “It was a hard time but a prosperous time.”

The mill was staffed by scores of European immigrants, particularly Irishmen and Scots. Stacey’s mother was born in Scotland’s “old country.” The zinc works meanwhile was known for Spanish workers. And there was also a large African American workforce and community.

“It was a great place to grow up, you learned how to get along with everyone,” remembered Stacey, who left Donora for college and then came back to serve as an English and history teacher, schools superintendent and now a member of the Donora Smog Museum committee.

There was however a distinct hierarchy among ethnicities. Scotch and Irish immigrants were higher-paid machinists and managers, while immigrants from southern and eastern Europe worked the dirtier, lower-paying jobs. The managers lived in “Cement City,” rows of relatively spacious and comfortable concrete homes up on the hillside, while laborers lived in wooden houses closer to the belching machinery.

Like many industrial cities across the heartland, the mills and zinc works promised a stable if grueling future for local families.

“It used to be you could graduate from high school on Friday night, go to the mill on Saturday, get a job and work there for 40 years,” Stacey said. “This was a town that had a work ethic, people knew they had to work hard to feed and clothe their families.”

Donora was known nationwide for its athletes – a number of baseball, basketball and football stars including Stan Musial and Ken Griffey who are proudly celebrated in the museum. The culture cultivated by the steel mills was conducive to developing top athletes, Stacey and many others believe. This culture also manifested itself in other ways, like the bloody brawls at the local bar called the Bucket of Blood. “If you were a loudmouth you might need to fight your way out,” said Stacey, who grew up half a block away from the tavern and added that “a day didn’t go by you didn’t see the police or an ambulance outside.”

In a 1951 homage to Donora, resident John P. “Moon” Clark wrote: “Donora is a town sanguine and singing with the customs and health and rough strength of a people who came from many different countries to live and work and grow together in a priceless amity and truly American fashion.”

Donora’s American Steel and Wire Works produced wire that was used for projects around the country including the Golden Gate Bridge. And it produced nails used nationwide, with a zinc coating so they didn’t rust. “If you’ve never been in the nail mill, you’re lucky,” said Stacey. “It was the noisiest place on the face of the earth.”

Stacey described the grisly 1920 death of World War I veteran Andrew Posey. “His job was to go in the big steel vats and chip off the residue. One day the vat let loose and inundated him with molten steel.”

Posey was buried encased in that steel, Stacey said. But rumor has it that during World War II when demand for steel was especially high, the lump was dug up and put back into the furnace.

“So Andrew Posey can say he served in the first and second World Wars,” Stacey said, offering what he describes as Donora’s trademark black humor. “That shows what a tough town it was.”

The story of Posey’s burial in a slab of steel has been debunked, but nonetheless his death and the myth were telling symbols of the seeming disposability of steelworkers.

Stacey said the company granted Posey’s family a “whopping $14 a month after his death.”

Elaborating on the company’s treatment of workers, he pointed to a photo in the Donora museum of a small square building and said, “That was the mill hospital – for 5,000 people – just to show you how well the mill treated you.” He went on to talk about a worker splashed by caustic chemicals in the face – “Make sure you come back tomorrow,” Stacey said he was told.

Stacey think conditions got better in the mills thanks to the United Steelworkers union.

Donora was a “very anti-union town that became a strong union town over time,” in large part because of the company’s apparent disregard for the well-being of workers, and the union’s advocacy, said Stacey, who describes himself as “a big union person.”

“I attribute the country’s prosperity post-World War II to two things: The GI Bill and the National Labor Relations Act,” Stacey says.

Today this prosperity has faded in Donora, which has the “left behind” feeling of many rust belt towns.

While there is still some heavy industry in the area, the U.S. Steel works and other bygone operations are only visible as remnants and ruins. The social club and park that once hosted picnics for thousands of steelworkers are overgrown, and the infamous Bucket of Blood is long gone. Many storefronts on Donora’s quaint main street are shuttered and vacant; few residents are visible even on a beautiful summer afternoon.

But at the Donora Smog Museum, the history and culture of Donora feel very much alive. And while the deadly smog is what made Donora most famous, the hard-working residents and the vibrant society they created are the real legacy, as Stacey tells it. This legacy continues among the families who still call Donora home, and in the countless structures from coast to coast built with the fruits of Donora’s labor.

“This isn’t the same town it used to be,” Stacey said. But still, “Donora is the only town in the country with that name. This is the center of the universe.” 

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism professor at Medill at Northwestern University, where she is fellowship director of the Social Justice News Nexus. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99 Percent., Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun and Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis.

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