a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Out of the smog, a tribute to Mom's family

My mother, June, second from left, with her sister and parents on her wedding day in in 1952 in Webster, Pennsylvania, across the Monongahela River from the infamous Donora zinc works.
By Scott Beveridge

WEBSTER, Pa. – The working-class neighbors who lived downwind of Donora’s smoky zinc mill had long feared the air was slowly killing them.

By October 1948, they were sure it was poisonous. Twenty people died, some gasping for their breath, and hundreds of others were sickened in this Monongahela River valley over that Halloween weekend.

My grandmother, Iva Dail Hart, tried to find fresh air in the damp basement of her soot-stained Victorian-era house in nearby Webster during the Donora smog event.

It was in that cellar at the time where the gentle woman whose hands comforted so many of her children, grandchildren and neighbors suffered her first heart attack.

All eyes were on the zinc mill as having caused what became the nation’s worst air pollution disaster.

But, a U.S. Public Health Service investigation in 1949 found no single cause of the deaths. It placed most of the blame on an unusual weather pattern that trapped the smokestack pollution from a U.S. Steel Corp. zinc mill from blowing east with the wind.

Historians and scientists across the world are still interested in the infamous smog, including Donora native Devra Davis, a scientist from Washington, D.C., who has worked under U.S. presidents from Carter to Clinton.

A visiting professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, she was in the Donora area in 2004 filming a PBS documentary on her book, “When Smoke Ran Like Water.” It chronicles the dangers of global air pollution, using the Donora incident to underscore her findings that pollution continues to be a major, global issue.

Davis wanted to hear our family stories about life in Webster, just across the Monongahela River from the zinc mill, when there was hardly a blade of grass on the soil because of the pollution.
Davis also was curious about Iva Dail and Howard Hart, who became part of one of the nation’s first environmental movements at a time when people didn’t use the word pollution.

In the months after the smog, the Harts attended secret meetings at the Webster schoolhouse to help map plans to improve their environment. The group called itself the Society for Better Living, earning a Pennsylvania charter in May 1949. The society recognized a need to eliminate mill gases it claimed were harmful to the health of people, animals, real estate and the soil.

The group also feared the power of U.S. Steel, which owned the zinc mill, along with steel, rod, nail and wire mills on the Washington County side of the river. The expansive industrial site took root in 1900.

Some members of the society also worried about losing their jobs at the mills for speaking against the corporate giant.

Howard Hart, for example, worked on Donora Southern Railroad, which hauled coal, iron ore and limestone to supply the mill furnaces, along with finished products to Pennsylvania Railroad and the world steel market.

The mill owned the riverbank, too, having once employed as many as 7,000 workers behind barbed wire fences.

The society eventually sued U.S. Steel in federal court, hoping to expose the zinc mill as the source of the foul air. This was the same mill that turned out alloys so powerful they could stop bullets from penetrating U.S. Army tanks.

U.S. Steel settled with the Webster landowners, and took responsibility for the deaths and damage, federal court records show.

Federal lawmakers, however, noted the damage to Webster and the smog deaths as evidence to enact the nation’s first anti-pollution legislation in 1967. The Donora incident also provided the impetus for creating the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Iva Dail Hart was not counted among the tragedy’s death toll because she died of a heart attack in 1960 at age 57.

In 1957, U.S. Steel closed what was once the largest and most complete zinc mill in the world. The company cited depleted ore reserves and outdated equipment as the reasons for the shutdown. The row of smokestacks was toppled within a year.

Our family of five moved into the Hart family home in October 1960. I wondered then, at the age of 4, why some of my new neighbors lived in black houses.

We moved there from nearby Charleroi, a town with clean neighborhoods, tree-lined streets, playgrounds and adults who encouraged children to play in piles of raked leaves in the fall.

My young eyes in Webster later looked forward to the excitement that followed heavy downpours. They always caused flash flooding along creeks and deep ravines because there was no topsoil to absorb the water.

Children here argued over who would pretend to be actor John Wayne in World War II movies, leading soldiers in and out of Webster’s craters that resembled war trenches.
Later, I would hear older neighbors talking about the days when the Webster air was routinely clouded by smog that ate the paint off clapboard houses.

Many of Webster’s withered wooden buildings would become abandoned in the rush to leave this town, founded as a boat-building center in 1833.

Some of those who stayed after the mill closed took new pride in their property, and they set about the task of covering their houses with a fresh coat of paint or aluminum siding.

It took years for grass to again cover Webster lawns and newly seeded trees to grow tall along the riverbank in the shadows of the old zinc mill.

(Reprinted from the Observer-Reporter)

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