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Pittsburgh, 1940

[ 65 ] June 4, 2012 |

In 1941, Pittsburgh passed a smoke control ordinance. Retronaut has a good collection of photographs suggesting why it was needed.

Of course, this is also the Republican vision for our future air quality.

This smoke was no joke. It could be fatal, especially given the mountains and valleys of western Pennsylvania that trapped the smog. The most notorious incident was the Donora Fog of 1948, which killed 20 people in a mill town outside of Pittsburgh.

Via

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  1. Ubu Imperator says:

    They should’ve just let the free market sort this one out; if enough people died from the filthy air, then no one would want to live in Pittsburgh, would therefore move away, and then no one would die from the filthy air. Problem solved! No clammy hand of government intervention needed here! (Aside from all the dead animals and plants, but they don’t vote, so screw ‘em.)

    • Malaclypse says:

      Back in the 90s, I read a libertarian argument that laws against pollution were bad because (wait for it) by lowering property values, pollution gives the poor affordable, albeit life-shortening, housing.

      • wengler says:

        American libertarian philosophy is always thinking about the poor!

      • DrDick says:

        My father’s family was from St. Louis and I can remember in the 60s that all the public buildings were charcoal gray or blackish. In the 70s, after the Clean Air Act and the owners had them sand blasted, I realized that they were really bright white white limestone.

        • wjts says:

          A few years back, they scrubbed all the soot and grime off the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh. The before and after contrast is striking.

      • Murc says:

        I don’t have a lot of sympathy for libertarians, but I have to say that’s not a libertarian argument; that’s a plutocrat-oriented conservative argument masquerading as one.

        Libertarians get really worked up over other people trying to do things to their property, and that included dumping loads of filth into or onto it.

        Of course, that also applies to other people trying to force them to pay employees a living wage or not write a restrictive covenant.

        • Holden Pattern says:

          Oddly, libertarians fail to grasp the collective action problem inherent in polluting *air*, and with that the transaction cost of solving the problem by lawsuit, probably in front of a judge who golfs with the head of the steel company that’s emitting the soot.

          • bradp says:

            Oddly, libertarians fail to grasp the collective action problem inherent in polluting *air*, and with that the transaction cost of solving the problem by lawsuit

            Or they see collective action problems and transaction costs in the government solution.

            • mpowell says:

              Sure, and if we didn’t have any evidence from the real world to work from, this kind of argument might make sense. Instead we have stuff like the Clean Air Act and it’s effects, in terms of costs and pollution control. And normal people are able to look at an example like that and see those ‘government is worse’ arguments for the nonsense that they are.

              • bradp says:

                And normal people are able to look at an example like that and see those ‘government is worse’ arguments for the nonsense that they are.

                I am not saying that the government made things worse, at least in this case. I’m saying the “Big Government saved the day” narrative ignores a lot of good that private and public local entities were doing to try and fix the problem.

                • DrDick says:

                  Trust me, as someone who choked on that kind of smog visiting my grandparents, the “Big Government” really did save the day. In the 1970s, breathing in LA was the equivalent of smoking 2 packs of cigarettes a day. While it is still not great, it is a lot better today.

        • It’s not an “if and only if” situation but it’s pretty optimistic of libertarians to think there will be enough interested property owners to battle Dow Chemical in Libertopia. How much is it worth to Industrial Concern X to let Industrial Concern Y pollute? It’s the same kind of thing that makes Bryan Caplan pine for the rights women had in 1880.

          I do recall one amusing libertarian fantasy or anecdote about bunches of people buying, say, a foot each of property on a river to keep it unpolluted because it’s their right to yadda yadda yadda. Maybe it really happened somewhere, but it’s asking a lot to make it happen everywhere.

          • Murc says:

            Who the hell sells property in packets like that?

            I know, I know, so much else is wrong with that idea, but that’s what leapt out at me.

  2. Davis X. Machina says:

    Improvement in air quality made possible in no small part by the post-war conversion of the Big Inch and Little Big Inch pipelines — built by the New Deal’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation to carry crude oil and refinery products to the East Coast during the war.

  3. Bill Murray says:

    The Donora Fog was between Stan Musial and Ken Griffey, Jr. Probably some sort of cosmic payback.

    and there’s always Centralia, but that was well after this

  4. Kyle Huckins says:

    We can only imagine the number of accidents that also resulted from not being able to see five feet in front of you.

    • njorl says:

      There have been some horrific accidents due to paper mill pollution. Paper mills tend to be on rivers near roads. They cause clouds of persistent, thick fog that linger in river valleys.

  5. Funkhauser says:

    Look at all those dynamic industries producing jobs and fostering growth! Go job creators go!

  6. Josh G. says:

    Holy SHIT that is horrible. I knew pollution was much worse 30+ years ago but not that bad.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Yeah, it’s one thing to talk about it, it’s another to be confronted with it visually.

    • Holden Pattern says:

      River. On. Fire.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuyahoga_River

      This is of course the fault of the government, and if the market had been left to work its magic, everything would have been jim-dandy.

      • bradp says:

        This is of course the fault of the government, and if the market had been left to work its magic, everything would have been jim-dandy.

        Well it was treated as an “industrial stream” by the state of Ohio, which greatly hampered local clean up attempts.

        And the turning point for polution in the Cuyahoga came when it got so bad as to be a hazard to shipping in the 40s, and the local Chamber of Commerce and Port and Harbor Commission started pushing very hard for river clean up.

        Fish were reported back in the river as early as 1959, and the 1969 fire was nothing compared to what was seen in the 40s and early 50s.

        • DrDick says:

          Once again you grossly distort history through that insane libertarian lens. I am actually old enough to remember what it was like and the battles over the EPA. Industry largely fought against any regulations then as they do now. The Chamber of Commerce, as regressive then as now, was at the forefront of the opposition.

          • bradp says:

            Industry largely fought against any regulations then as they do now.

            I have no doubt.

            • Malaclypse says:

              At some point, a reasonable observer would look at those pictures of Pittsburgh, or the Cuyahoga burning, and say that government regulation was a Good Thing. An unreasonable observer would keep insisting that government regulation was not needed to keep the Brandywine River from burning.

              • bradp says:

                The only point I wanted to make is that local private organizations and public institutions were combatting the problem and making progress long before pictures of the 1952 fire made in into Time magazine in 1969.

                And yes, higher level government industrial and environmental policy hindered their efforts.

                • Malaclypse says:

                  Wow, it is like government can be either useful or a hinderance, depending on who is in charge. One might even draw the conclusion that historical context matters.

                • bradp says:

                  depending on who is in charge

                  I agree with this statement, I just believe that there are forces that lead to all governments to put the wrong people “in charge”, or at least be responsive to the wrong people.

                • Malaclypse says:

                  I just believe that there are forces that lead to all governments to put the wrong people “in charge”, or at least be responsive to the wrong people.

                  And yet, in spite of that, air and water quality are better now than then. You keep refusing to admit this basic point.

                • rea says:

                  there are forces that lead to all governments to put the wrong people “in charge”

                  Ah, the mystical libertarian belief that humans are incapable of organizing to accomplish anything.

                • bradp says:

                  And yet, in spite of that, air and water quality are better now than then. You keep refusing to admit this basic point.

                  I never denied that.

                • bradp says:

                  Ah, the mystical libertarian belief that humans are incapable of organizing to accomplish anything.

                  Really?

                  You should read some libertarian literature. Libertarian economists generally believe that the nature of people means that they cannot help but organize themselves.

                  It is the progressive viewpoint that people cannot organize and need to be led into it.

                  Libertarians quite explicitly argue that people organize themselves, and that no actor can effectively organize others.

                  You sound like a creationist saying that an evolutionary biologist is opposed to organization because he or she rejects a conscious creator.

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  And yes, higher level government industrial and environmental policy hindered their efforts.

                  Specifically, a government policy of not regulating private-sector actors who were polluting the river.

                • rea says:

                  Libertarian economists generally believe that the nature of people means that they cannot help but organize themselves.

                  It is the progressive viewpoint that people cannot organize and need to be led into it.

                  Okay, so people can organize, but once we put the label “government” on their organization, it mystically becomes evil? Yes, and organization is tolerable only if there are no leaders?

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  It is the progressive viewpoint that people cannot organize and need to be led into it.

                  No, it is the progressive viewpoint that different groups of people have different amounts of power.

                  I have absolutely no doubts that the residents of inner-city Cleveland could organize themselves with the goal of opposing the pollution imposed on them by industrial corporations. I have quite a few doubts that such an organization would be able to get what it wants without the government lending a hand.

                • bradp says:

                  Okay, so people can organize, but once we put the label “government” on their organization, it mystically becomes evil? Yes, and organization is tolerable only if there are no leaders?

                  No. Once you start organizing other people at the barrel of a gun, the purpose of government, it become evil. How much of the evil can or should be tolerated is up for debate.

              • rea says:

                Oh, you don’t mean the Brandywine in Pennsylvania and Delaware, . . .

              • bradp says:

                Specifically, a government policy of not regulating private-sector actors who were polluting the river.

                Actually, no.

                For one, the city of Cleveland was actually sued by a paper company to stop dumping raw sewage into the Cuyohoga. So at least that level of government was complicit and contributing.

                More importantly, however, was that cases like Vian v. Sheffield were shifting common law towards strict liability being placed on the pollutor. The liable poluttor was the unregulated status quo.

                This status quo was undermined by Ohio legislation that created the Ohio Water Pollution Control Board, and stated that it was “unlawful” to pollute any Ohio waterways ““except in such cases where the water pollution control board has issued a valid and unexpired permit.”

                This is another one of the countless examples of well-intentioned regulation being carved out by powerful interests and undercutting what power the rest had.

          • Western Dave says:

            Brad P basically has it right. I can’t remember the book title off the top of my head, but I remember reading a book (article?) for prelims that covered this in great detail. Basically, the 1969 fire was the last and the smallest of the post-war fires. It got picked up nationally because Time put it on the cover.

            More importantly, as Brad points out, the local clean-up efforts led by the city where hampered by the state of Ohio. My understanding is that it environmental forces than used those ongoing battles as an example of why EPA was needed.

            • Western Dave says:

              It’s a Jonathan H. Adler Fordham Law Review article. Although Adler is a free market freak, his history of the river fire and Cleveland’s actions is essentially correct.

        • joe from Lowell says:

          Well it was treated as an “industrial stream” by the state of Ohio

          Which mean, in concrete terms, that the government did not interfere with private-sector industrial users as the polluted it.

          • bradp says:

            No, it meant industrial units that had permission to could pollute the Cuyahoga without the liability that they had faced before.

            • Malaclypse says:

              What liability existed prior to laws prohibiting discharge?

              • bradp says:

                An Ohio Court issued a decision in 1948 stating that “one may not obtain by prescription, or otherwise than by purchase, a right to cast sewage upon the lands of another without his consent”.

                • Malaclypse says:

                  And reading the links generated by your quote, we learn that local and state governments were bought off, in a way the feds were not.

    • Malaclypse says:

      I grew up about 5 miles from a chemical plant owned by what is now Dow Chemical. When I was a little kid (pre-1970) and the wind was wrong, you couldn’t play outside, because your eyes stung.

      And they were the only major employer, and did actually provide good jobs at good wages, and nobody said anything about the fact that you could not breath.

    • rea says:

      Pittsburg was up front in dealing with this, though–it wa nowhere near this bad when my family moved there in 1960.

  7. TT says:

    What a delightful discovery. I always knew one could taste freedom, whether in the form of medical bankruptcy, sexual harassment, or being fired without cause. But are you now saying that one can inhale freedom as well?

    • Invisible Hand says:

      Every single breath is in fact a matter of personal choice.

      • c u n d gulag says:

        Sure, the air was very polluted.

        But there was no hunger.

        Hungry?
        Take in a mouthful of air, and chew on it until you can swallow it.
        And think of all of the vitamins and minerals!
        Lead.
        Arsenic.
        Large carbon particles.

        Yum!!!

  8. James E Powell says:

    Sure, things were bad back then. But the EPA, like unions and the Voting Rights Act, has served it purpose and we don’t need it anymore. We need to layoff everyone working for the EPA and free the job creators from this oppression. They won’t pollute like the bad companies in the old days. Really. They promise.

  9. Ed says:

    Yes, I forgot the space. There’s no such word as “onfire.”

  10. themac says:

    Erik-

    Semi-related, but have you ever read the book ‘The Ones Who Hit the Hardest’ by Chad Milman and Shawn Coyne? It’s mostly about the Pittsburgh Steelers/Dallas Cowboys rivalry in the 1970s, but that’s paralleled (somewhat awkwardly) with a subplot about the rise and decline of the steelworker’s union in Pittsburgh. Those chapters were more interesting than the football chapters, but they seemed kind of incomplete…just wondering if you’ve read it, what you thought, and if there are any good, comprehensive histories of the steel trade in PA?

  11. Davis says:

    I imagine the steel executives lived up on Mount Washington, looking down on it.

  12. Davis says:

    In some Marx Brothers movie, a vamp blew cigarette smoke into Groucho’s face, and he said, “This ls like living in Pittsburgh, if you want to call that living.”

  13. creature says:

    The Cuyahoga has been a moving cesspool for a long time. Growing up in Akron, we would go swimming/wading in the river, much to our mothers’ consternation. She told me I would get ‘the creeping crud’ and have to have limbs sawn off, to save me. I do remember any cuts and scrapes would be inflamed and red by the time we got home (this was evidence that we had gone into the forbidden river) and would be pus-laden and nasty within days (seemed like within hours). That it caught fire was lauded as a good thing, to ‘burn off’ the nastiness in the water. We moved to a town, near the river, that had a paper mill, in the next town over, on the river. The brown scum was pretty cool looking, but by then I knew that it was also the source of the eye and throat stinging stench we noticed. I did not swim in the river, then. There was much crying and gnashing of teeth when the plant became a warehouse/shipping facility- lost jobs and tax base, you know. No mention of the cost of clean-up and update were too much to justify keeping the mill operation running. The EPA almost ruined my childhood! All those fun times, with the deadly ‘water’!

  14. Hovde says:

    My dad grew up in 1930′s Pittsburg-he talked about the literal “darkness at noon.”

  15. The only girlll I’ve ev-er looooooved
    Was born with poison in herrr luuuuungs
    And then they choked her completely
    All in one night 1940
    The whole town coughing spastically
    And just a year before the planes
    Made us all live through infamy

    Now she’s a boy in South LA
    Writing notes to the EPA
    Silent words fly beneath the Sun
    All sing to say our dream is done

    But now we must pick up every piece
    of the biome that we loved
    just to keep ourselves
    at least enough to carry on

    • elm says:

      Now we all we need is a singing saw to play in the background and we’ll have a hit on our hands! (Seriously, how long did it take you to rework the lyrics to create that?)

      • The hardest part was “choked”. The rest went pretty quickly. Figuring out rhymes doesn’t take too long.

        Trying to do the same thing for eg Two-Headed Boy, on the other hand . . . that’d take awhile.

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