DONORA DISASTER WAS CRUCIBLE FOR CLEAN AIR
W. Michael McCabe
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Before there was an Environmental Protection Agency, before there was an Earth Day, before Rachel Carson wrote "Silent Spring," there was Donora.
Donora is a small industrial town south of Pittsburgh which experienced this nation's worst pollution disaster 50 years ago, before any of our major environmental laws were written. On the evening of October 26, 1948, the people of that working class community went to bed not knowing that a suffocating cloud of industrial gases and dust would descend upon them like some biblical plague during the night.
Twenty residents died and half the town's population -- 7,000 people – were hospitalized over the next five days with difficulty breathing. The cloud, a poisonous mix of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and metal dust, came from the smokestacks of the local zinc smelter where most of the town worked.
The Donora tragedy shocked the nation and marked a turning point in our complacency about industrial pollution and its effect on our health. Donora made the survival of area residents, not to mention the economic revival of the Pittsburgh area, an imperative.
This Wednesday, 50 years later, a memorial service at Our Lady of the Valley church will honor the innocent victims of the Donora Smog.
This memorial serves the memory of those who lost their lives by affirming the lessons learned and by celebrating the progress made in cleaning our air nationwide. The Monongahela River mill town that taught the world that pollution kills has become an icon for clean air.
Nearby Pittsburgh has long had to live with the stigma of being called the "smoky city." Newspaper editorials dating back to the mid-19th century decried the foul sooty air belching from iron and steel industry smokestacks and pressed for government action to control pollution.
Ordinances limiting smoke in the city were twice enacted at the turn of the century, but were later invalidated by the courts. Street lights were lit during the day to cut through the smoke until after World War II, when true enforcement of a 1941 smoke control ordinance began.
In 1945, anticipating the health problems from filthy air, newly elected Pittsburgh Mayor David Lawrence and financier Richard King Mellon, head of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, pledged cleaner air as part of the "Renaissance" they envisioned for the city. A decade later, coal burning for home heating was outlawed and clean natural gas was piped to all homes. Industry began screening its emissions. And diesel engines replaced coal-fired locomotives and river boats by 1952.
By 1955, Pittsburgh's heavy smoke had cleared, its visible emissions reduced by nearly 97 percent. Delegations journeyed from far and wide to marvel at how it was done. Other industrial cities like St. Louis and Cincinnati, seeing the success of the Pittsburgh area, also took drastic steps to scrub their air and polish their national image. The results were equally remarkable.
As a result of civic action, Americans could now see, smell and, in fact, taste the improvements in their air. They would not settle for less. And in 1963, Congress passed the first federal Clean Air Act, then amended it in 1970 to give it teeth. States were now required to come up with plans for reducing pollution to meet federal clean air standards.
Since the passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act, we have removed 98 percent of lead from the air, 79 percent of soot, 41 percent of sulfur dioxide, 28 percent of carbon monoxide, and 25 percent of the smog soup now called ozone.
We've come a long way since Donora, but our work is not done. America no longer has black skies or belching smokestacks. Today's air quality problems are more insidious. We now understand how air pollution blows across state lines, how nitrogen oxide emissions from a coal-fired power plant in the Midwest can cause unhealthy levels of ozone smog for children living in the Northeast.
Ground-level ozone -- today's smog -- is still with us, and so is its associated health problems. An estimated 10 to 20 percent of all respiratory-related hospital visits in the Northeast can be attributed to ozone pollution. Cases of death among children from asthma have reached alarming levels and are on the rise.
Over the past year and a half, EPA has taken several important steps to keep the momentum moving forward. In July 1997, to better protect public health, EPA tightened the ozone standard and set a new standard for fine particles. Last month, the agency required 22 states and the District of Columbia to reduce their smog-causing nitrogen oxide emissions by 28 percent by the year 2003 -- that's 1.1 million tons.
Compliance with this new requirement means that 31 million Americans can breathe air that meets the nation's new health standard for ozone.
Whether it would have saved 20 lives in Donora in 1948, or will improve 31 million lives in the Northeast in 1998, it is clear that protecting air quality has become a healthy imperative. Special interests are trying to undo our improved air quality standards.
We may never return to the disastrous conditions of Donora, but we need to keep up the momentum to get clean, breathable air.
We can't live without it.