Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Smog show on horizon
DONORA – Devra Lee Davis never tires of talking about the Donora smog tragedy of 1948.
She used the story about that foggy weekend that trapped mill pollution in the deep valley for three days, killing 20 people, to introduce her critically acclaimed 2002 book, "When Smoke Ran Like Water."
The Donora native also has done countless interviews on the subject and was back in her hometown June 18 to tape a documentary about it for the Weather Channel.
"The story is more that they recognize the issue," Davis said before going on camera at a stage set in Donora Public Library to talk once more about the nation's deadliest air pollution disaster.
The Weather Channel is producing the show for its series, "When Weather Changed the World," because a stagnant weather pattern contributed to the smog that led to the nation's first clean-air law. It is expected to air in October during the 60th anniversary of the tragedy.
Many people have placed the blame for the smog, which also sent thousands of people to local hospitals, on the Donora zinc works.
Although the plant burned coal and mixed it with calcium chloride to produce zinc, the company also used it to produce alloys that were never made public. On the zinc end, the plant smokestacks released plumes of toxic fluoride gas that was strong enough to etch glass and damage the teeth of children and cow's hooves, Davis said.
"They did blame it on the weather, a perfect storm," she said. "We still don't know what went wrong. We never will."
The zinc mill closed in 1957, followed by the steel mill in the 1960s, giving Donora the distinction of having the first major steel mill to close in the United States.
The borough has been giving its blighted downtown a makeover for the smog commemoration. With the help of California University of Pennsylvania, giant reproductions of news photos from the event have been hung in abandoned downtown storefront windows. The commemoration committee also is developing a smog museum.
"This is a chance for Donora to step out of the gloom, the supposed stain that this had on the community, and commemorate those who passed," borough Councilman Don Pavelko said Wednesday.
He said the smog victims need to be credited for creating an awareness in America about the need for clean air.
"We're hoping this is the springboard to bring some pride back to the community."
(Caption: Devra Lee Davis, shown in Donora, is a professor in the department of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh)