1948 Killer Smog Triggered Pollution Control

"Death Smog--Get Out of Town" read the newspaper headline in 1948 in Donora, a small Pennsylvania town 37 miles south of Pittsburgh. On October 29, smog from a temperature inversion and factory smoke caused one of America's greatest environmental disasters.

Until that October, the smoke from the Donora Zinc Works and American Steel & Wire, both run by U.S. Steel Corp., was considered nothing more than a daily nuisance. Residents accepted it because the plants employed thousands. On October 29, as usual, thick yellow smog hid the town, the cars on the road, and even the players in a baseball game. But over the next several days, sulphurous smog killed 20 people and sickened 40 percent of the population.

Other similar events began to occur. In 1953, 200 people died in New York City, felled by pollution. At this time, America's factories and mills were humming along at peak capacity, bringing jobs and prosperity to towns across the country, but sometimes with deadly environmental consequences.

Donora's deadly smog had barely lifted when the borough, state Department of Health, United Steelworkers and the U.S. Public Health Service all launched investigations. The inquiries were the first organized effort in the United States to document the health effects of pollution. The tragedy in the tiny mill town of Donora would soon give birth to the nation's first air quality standards.

In 1955, the state passed the Clean Air Act, the first Pennsylvania law to control air pollution. The first federal law against air pollution was passed 1955. The zinc works closed in 1956. Beginning in 1963, a series of federal laws shifted federal policy to a nationalized framework for air pollution regulation from support of state and local initiatives.

In 1970, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, which established the primary federal authority for national ambient air quality standards, industrial emission permits and restrictions on motor vehicle emissions. The effect of the smog on Donora was a key issue in congressional debates, leading to passage of the law. The Environmental Protection Agency, created in December of the same year, was designated to administer the Act

The expansion of federal authority occurred as a few leading states and cities began to toughen their air control regulations. Some industries sought federal laws in order to provide consistent requirements across the county. This, combined with the public concern, helped lead to stronger national laws in air pollution.

Today, Donora is enjoying a rebirth, both in new industries and in cleaner air. A diversified industrial park hosts 24 industries, mostly in fabrication, that employ 2,500 people. The companies include Elliott, which makes parts for battleships, and Polycrom Hustman, a plastics plant. Mayor John Lignelli pointed to the 5-year tax forgiveness policy that attracted these new industries. A recently enacted law extended the policy to 12 years.

The industrial park replaced the mill run by U.S. Steel Corporation, which shut down in the 60's. "I remember having to sweep off the porch three or four times a day to get rid of the soot that came out of that mill, Lignelli says. "Today, we do not have these problems. You can see across the river."