In 1948, smog left deadly legacy in Donora

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On a late October day in 1948, Charles Stacey stood on the curb along McKean Avenue, the main street in Donora, to watch the town's Halloween parade. But he could barely see the marchers in the middle of the street because of a dense and otherworldly smog.

Despite the smoky, acrid haze, Dr. Stacey, then a 16-year-old high school senior and today still a resident of the Monongahela River valley mill town in Washington County, said he wasn't scared.

He'd seen bad air before, many times. He had no way of knowing then that the stew of sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide and fluoride pollution pumped into the air by U.S. Steel Corp.'s zinc and steel mills and trapped over the valley by a weather inversion, would last five days and create its own haunting ghosts. Through that Halloween week, Donora, 37 river miles south of Pittsburgh, was like hell with the lid on.

"We didn't know this was anything different," said Dr. Stacey, 78, who was the football team equipment manager at the time. "But once it settled in, it left a different taste in your mouth."

And people were dying. At the high school football game Saturday afternoon, Dr. Stacey remembers, the public address announcer telling one of the football players, Stan Sawa, to go home in the middle of the game. He found out later that Mr. Sawa's father had died. The first floor of the Donora Hotel became the medical center, and the basement became the morgue, because funeral homes were full.

On Sunday morning U.S. Steel finally shut down its Donora mills. By that afternoon, when a rainstorm blew into the valley ending the inversion and clearing the pollution, 22 people had died in Donora and the town of Webster, just across the Mon. Almost half of Donora's 13,000 residents were sickened, and hundreds were evacuated or hospitalized.

"Dr. Clarence Mills, a researcher at the University of Cincinnati, said at the time that if the inversion had lasted another day, hundreds more would have died and life as we know it would not exist in Donora," Dr. Stacey said.

In the months that followed, an additional 50 people died in Donora over the number that would normally be expected. And the town's mortality rate remained significantly higher than that of neighboring towns in the Mon Valley for a decade.

U.S. Steel refused to accept blame at the time and still has not turned over to researchers its archival data related to the fatal smog.

Lawsuits totaling $4.5 million in claims were filed by more than 100 Donora residents against U. S. Steel. All were settled in 1951 for $256,000, according to a new book, "The Polluters," written by Benjamin Ross and Steven Amter.

"No one got rich," said Dr. Stacey. "After the lawyers were paid, most people had enough to buy a television set."

Despite the efforts of industry to cast the tragedy as an "act of God," the fatalities in Donora received national attention. That event changed the way air pollution was viewed, moving it rapidly from an aesthetic issue to a public health concern, and spurred local, state and federal officials to control toxic air pollution.

Allegheny County adopted a smoke control ordinance in 1949, and the U.S. Air Pollution Control Act of 1955 was the first federal legislation to recognize pollution as a problem. The 1970 Clean Air Act established regulations limiting unhealthy smog, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and airborne particulates or soot.

Donora has only recently accepted its tragically historic role as catalyst in the ongoing efforts to control air pollution. In 2008 it opened the Donora Smog Museum in a corner storefront that formerly housed a Chinese restaurant and adopted the forward-looking motto "Clean Air Started Here."

Inside the Smog Museum, Dr. Stacey, a leader of the Donora Historical Society and the museum committee, likes to take visitors on a tour that celebrates the smoky early 20th-century prosperity of Donora at least as much as it documents the darkest days of its dirty past.

The town once known as "Horseshoe Bottom" because it sits tight on an inside bend of the Monongahela River owes its identity to the 20-block-long mill works that brought people and prosperity, he said. Its workers smelted zinc and spun the stout suspension cables used to hold up the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the double-decked Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York City. And Donora native Stan "The Man" Musial, who would go on to win the Triple Crown in 1948 and have a Hall of Fame baseball career with the St. Louis Cardinals, worked in the zinc mill after his first professional season.

The air in the zinc mill was so bad, Dr. Stacey said, the Spanish workers brought into town by the company to do the dirty and dangerous jobs there worked only four-hour shifts and were paid for eight. And the white smoke that came out of the zinc smelting furnaces and smokestacks killed plants and trees on both sides of the river, he said.

"Many claim the rain caused erosion so bad it exposed the tops of coffins up the hill from the zinc works in Gilmore Cemetery, and one of the coffins was even washed down onto Meldon Avenue," Dr. Stacey said.

"But the hills on both sides of the river are green today, and the air is much cleaner than it once was. I'm glad Donora played a role in that. I can see across the street now, but I know, too, there's still a long way to go."

Don Hopey: or 412-263-1983. David Templeton: or 412-263-1578.


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