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This Day in Labor History: October 27, 1948

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On October 27, 1948, an air inversion trapped the pollution spewed out by U.S. Steel-owned factories in Donora, Pennsylvania. The Donora Fog killed 20 people and sickened 6000 others. This event was one of the most important toxic events in the postwar period that sparked the rise of the environmental movement and groundbreaking legislation to protect Americans from the worst impacts of industrialization.

Donora was a town dominated by U.S. Steel. Southeast of Pittsburgh, the town had both the Donora Zinc Works and the American Steel and Wire plant, both owned by U.S. Steel. The pollution throughout southwest Pennsylvania was legendary as the combination of the steel industry and the region’s hills and valleys meant incredible smoke. While Pittsburgh was nationally famous for its pollution, surrounding towns had similar problems. For the 19th and first half of the twentieth century, this pollution was seen as a sign of progress. But after World War II, with the struggles for mere survival that marked American labor history for the previous century over, workers began demanding more of their employers and government when it came to the environment.

The factories routinely released hydrogen fluoride, sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, fluorine, and other poisons into the air. Nearly all the vegetation within a half mile of the Zinc Works was already dead. Donora already suffered from high rates of respiratory deaths, a fact noted at the time, which is significant because people didn’t much talk about that in 1948. The people who had to deal with these problems were the workers themselves. The companies poisoned their bodies inside the factories through toxic exposure on the job and they poisoned their bodies outside the factories through air, water, and ground pollution. Being an industrial worker in mid-twentieth century America was to be under a constant barrage of toxicity.

In Donora, people had been complaining about the air quality for decades. U.S. Steel opened the American Steel and Wire plant in 1915. By 1918, it was already paying people off for the air pollution and it faced lawsuits from residents, especially farmers, through the Great Depression. But in a climate of weak legal repercussions or regulation, this was merely a nuisance for U.S. Steel.

DonoraSmokeStacks

Pollution in Donora (credit here)

The air inversion started on October 27 and continued until November 2. When it began, this meant that the pollution spewing from the smokestacks just sat in the valley, turning the air into a toxic stew. By October 29, the police closed the town to traffic because no one could see well enough to drive. By that time, people were getting very sick. 6000 people became ill out of a town of 13,000. Almost all of these people were workers and their families who relied upon U.S. Steel for survival. Yet that could also kill them. 800 pets also died.

DonoraSmogAtNoon

The Donora Fog. This picture was taken around noon.

The smog could easily have been worse. An assessment released in December estimated that thousands more could have died if it lasted a couple extra days. Notably, the weather inversion was region-wide (in fact, there were fogs for hundreds of miles during this larger event), but Pittsburgh, long the famed home of American smoke pollution, avoided any serious health problems like Donora because it had recently passed new ordinances against burning bituminous coal, thus lowering the pollution levels and saving its citizens’ lives. Alas, Donora had not passed such regulations.

U.S. Steel of course called the Donora Fog “an act of God,” because only a higher power could have led to a factory without pollution controls. This is standard strategy for corporations when their environmental policies kill people. The Donora Fog put U.S. Steel workers, organized with the United Steelworkers of America, into a difficult situation. Six of the seven members of the Donora city council were USWA members. And they were sick too. But what if U.S. Steel closed the factories? Even in 1948, this was already on workers’ minds. Yet they also wanted real reform. Workers did not trust federal and state regulators. The U.S. Public Health Service originally rejected any investigation of Donora, calling it an “atmospheric freak.” When investigations finally did happen a few days later, there were no air samples from the pollution event itself and the government recommended the factories reopen.

So the USWA and city council filled with its own members conducted their own investigation. CIO president Phil Murray offered the locals $10,000 to start this process. Working with a medical school professor from the University of Cincinnati, the USWA hired six housewives to conduct health effects survey to create the basis for a lawsuit. This continued pressure finally forced a government response. When the Zinc Works decided to reopen in order to “prove” that the plant could not possibly cause smog, locals pressured the Public Heath Service to make the test public. When it did, the health complaints started rolling in, with parents keeping their children home from school. Ultimately, the Public Health Service had no interest in holding U.S. Steel accountable for their subsidiary plants and the company itself wanted to avoid liability without creating a new regulatory structure that would limit emissions. U.S. Steel openly claimed they would close the plants if it had to make major reforms. And in the end, the Public Health Service report, released in October 1949, did not pin culpability on the factories.

The people of Donora sued the plants in response. The company returned to its “act of God” legal defense. The Zinc Works lawsuit paid 80 families $235,000 when it was settled, but that barely covered their legal fees. The American Steel and Wire suit was more successful, leading to a $4.6 million payout. But this was a still a pittance considering the damage done to the people of Donora by the steel industry. Yet in the end, this was an industry the town also needed to survive. U.S. Steel closed both plants by 1966, leading to the long-term decline of Donora, a scenario repeated across the region as steel production moved overseas. Today, Donora’s population is less than half what it was in 1948.

The Donora Fog helped lead to laws cleaning up the air. The first meaningful air pollution legislation in the nation’s history passed Congress and was signed by President Eisenhower in 1955. 1963 saw the first Clean Air Act and 1970 the most significant Clean Air Act. Supporters of all these laws cited Donora as evidence of the need for air pollution legislation.

For decades now, anti-fluoridation nutcases have used the Donora Fog as one of their cases to prove that fluoride is the world’s greatest evil and the government is covering it up.

I drew from Lynn Page Snyder, “Revisiting Donora, Pennsylvania’s 1948 Air Pollution Disaster, in Joel Tarr, ed., Devastation and Renewal: An Environmental History of Pittsburgh and Its Region for this post.

This is the 122nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • How much impact was there from Berton Roueché’s 1950 account of the mass poisoning, in the New Yorker?

    • Great question and I don’t know the answer.

  • Mudge

    Donora, PA. Hometown of Stan Musial and Ken Griffey.

    • Baby Needs-A-Nym

      Musial was MVP that year (an amazing offensive season), and his father died in the aftermath of the “fog” incident. He’s sometimes listed among the victims.

    • Kathleen

      Both Sr and Jr.

      Excellent post, Erik, as always.

  • The only thing you need to remember: the EPA kills jobs. This pseudo-fact is infinitely worse than industry killing people, because [waves hands].

    • rea

      Well, by killing people, industry creates jobs . . .

      • CP

        ::has flashback to Gary Oldman’s “you see, destruction actually creates life!” show and tell in The Fifth Element::

        • Rob in CT

          Look at them! So busy now. So full of sound and color!

          • Pat

            Well, by killing people, industry creates jobs . . .

            or rather, job openings.

      • KmCO

        And industries are people too!

  • Murc

    The companies poisoned their bodies inside the factories through toxic exposure on the job and they poisoned their bodies outside the factories through air, water, and ground pollution.

    o/~And it’s go, boys, go! They’ll time your every breath!
    o/~And every day you’re in this place you’re two days nearer death.
    o/~But you go…

    The Chemical Worker’s Song (Process Man)

  • Rob in CT

    I always figured that even if we had not created the EPA, passed the Clean Air & Clean Water acts, and so forth, that heavy industry would still have largely followed the same path: factories moved overseas and/or automated to the point where jobs in manufacturing would be about what they are now. Because the savings from employing cheap labor must outweight the savings from not having to bother with environmental regulation.

    Even if the EPA “killed jobs” this was a trade off for a healthier environment.

    I think there is a certain amount of “victims of our own success” going on too. Air & water quality in the US really has improved dramatically, right? So now people don’t see the need for environmental regs responsible for that cleanup.

    It’s like the discussion I had with my Republican-leaning friend from gradeschool over beers this Saturday. He worked himself into a fury at Dannell Malloy because he allegedly didn’t savage the state employee unions sufficiently (sidenote: friend’s wife is a teacher, albeit over the border in NY. Oy!). I point out that unions are why we have a weekend to sit around drinking beer, and he’s all “oh, yeah, that’s great! Unions really were needed! But now…”

    • Pat

      I’m so dry here under my umbrella. It’s like it isn’t raining anymore at all. So I can just toss it away…

      • Rob in CT

        Basically, yeah.

        Now it’s true that if you have a special super-duper anti-acid rain umbrella and you solve acid rain, you can probably switch to a cheaper umbrella and stay dry (analogy: plummetting crime rates don’t mean we don’t need law enforcement, but they do suggest we could spend less on police & prisons and still be pretty safe. That’s aside from other reforms to the CJ system).

        There are cases where the regulatory agencies do silly things that don’t help folks. I’ve seen it happen. Chasing the edge of a plume down to 1ppb really should be less important than going in and starting cleanup at the source (because your plume will then start attenuating). Sometimes regulators can over-do the assessment phase. But that’s basically just saying they’re not perfect. Duh. Nothing is.

    • Brett

      Even if the EPA “killed jobs” this was a trade off for a healthier environment.

      Same here. I can understand why they were reluctant to come down hard on US Steel over it, but it would have been a much, much better idea to do that early on in 1948 than when the plants closed in 1966 anyways*. At least then the workers might have been soaked up by the growing economy of the 1950s and 1960s.

      * Not that I think they would have actually closed over it in 1948-49, and if it really was a huge burden the union and the plant could have lobbied for federal assistance for the costs of changing the plant to curtail emissions.

  • DrDick

    Another useful reminder that the plutocrats have always regarded workers as disposable and will always choose profits over people. Keep up the good work.

    FWIW, I remember the “good old days” before the EPA all too well. There was zinc smelter in my home town (just a few miles away from where we lived for my first 9 years). Vile nasty things. My grandparents lived in St. Louis and I can still remember the smog there and how if blackened everything in town. You cannot imagine my amazement when, a few years after the act went into effect, the owners of the big buildings decided to sandblast them and I discovered that all those dark and menacing towers were actually white limestone.

    • jroth95

      Mellon Institute, a research institution now part of Carnegie Mellon U., features massive, single-piece Ionic columns. IIRC, they didn’t plan to clean them (the building was ca. 1930, and so not as blackened as many), but then they filmed a scene from “Hoffa” in front of them, so they selectively cleaned them so that they’d look white from the camera angle, but still black on the backside.

      Now I don’t remember if the black is still there – they may have finished the job in the last 20 years.

      Incidentally, they also filmed a big fight sequence in the last Batman movie on those steps. Very dramatic building; you always see people taking wedding pictures on the steps.

      • jroth95

        Differential soot cleanup confirmed. I may post a photo link, since I’m sure everyone is fascinated.

  • jroth95

    Name-dropping: Joel Tarr co-taught some of my urban history classes when I was in college, and I later helped install a new sliding glass door in his house.

    Other noteworthy things about Donora:

    Cement City, a development of Prairie-style houses built of site cast concrete, financed (I’m pretty sure) by American Wire – a bit of genuinely progressive paternalism (from what I’ve read, there was none of the bossism attached to e.g. Pullman).

    – Ken Griffey, Jr. is, of course, the second-best left handed hitter born in Donora on November 21.

    – There’s a pretty good indie band called Donora.

    Oh, and it should probably be added that steel production moved not only overseas, but also to union-free sites in the South (which, to be fair, also featured modern plants with access to cheap TVA electricity – it wasn’t purely an anti-labor decision to locate there).

  • Bruce Vail

    We often forget these days that U.S. Steel was once synonomous with American big business. So killing 20 people in a company town resonated in a way back then that’s hard to imagine today.

    Take the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, for example, which killed even more people and caused even more pollution.

  • JR

    In 1971 we drove from Morgantown WV to Pittsburgh PA to pick up a friend coming in on a bus.

    This was before I-79 was finished, you had to drive on the old two-lane road, which passed beside miles of steel mill slag, there was a railway line on top of the slag, and they were dumping glowing red hot slag right beside the road.

    The fumes were harsh, and the glowing hillside went on for miles.

    And this was in 1971! Of course at that time in West Virginia there were burning slate dumps around coal mines. Driving around in the country in the evening, you could see blue and orange flames coming out of cracks in the ground, and smell the sulfur burning in the gob.

    Much like visiting the hot circle of Hell, and people lived right there, with little kids. Growing up I was warned to never get near a slate dump, as there were voids underground that could open, cave-in and swallow you into a burning pit of fire.

    People who hate regulations should have to live right there, between the steel slag dump and the coal mine slate dump, forever, or perhaps until they become a union member and a Democratic voter.

    • Lee Rudolph

      Oh, my, yes. Before the Ohio Turnpike provided an alternative route, my family would drive from our home in Cleveland to my mother’s parents’ house in California, PA (south of Pittsburgh on the Monongahela) three or four weekends a year. Two of the main landmarks that meant we were finally getting close were the Madonna of the Trail statue and the (smelly) piles of red-dog slag all along either side of the old National Road. (But that was rather earlier than 1971…)

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