a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Monday, January 5, 2009

The gamble on Donora steel

Part III: The mill is sued over sickening smoke

Mamie C. Burkhardt didn’t immediately link the onset of her debilitating health problems to a zinc mill that fired up for the first time in 1915
across the street from her house.

It wasn’t until her painful headaches, troubled breathing and lethargy disappeared entirely during a trip the following year to visit relatives in New York that she suspected the air back home in Donora, Pa., was poisoning her.

She and her husband, Frank, reacted by becoming the first of many local people to sue the powerful American Steel and Wire Co. for damages its mill inflicted to their health and property.

“It was something awful what I suffered there with the headaches,” Mamie Burkhardt testified during the trial in Washington County Court in 1919.

The Burkhardts and their neighbors then described environmental damages that, unknown to them at the time, would someday be blamed for America's deadliest air pollution disaster.

When the winds whipped west and carried the copper-colored fumes from the row of nine smokestacks toward the Burkhardt house on Gilmore St., the acidic air disintegrated the curtains and blinds in its windows.

“They would just fall to pieces,” Mrs. Burkhardt testified in court.

The foul air pitted the nickel plating on their piano, as well as the coal stoves they used for warmth and cooking, the court record shows.

“It just seemed to eat it off,” Mrs. Burkardt told the court.

The Burkhardts built their two story frame house in 1904 and took pride in their green lawn, the five maple and Carolina poplar trees they planted on their property and the vine of roses growing up the front porch. But on August 1916 night, the leaves fell off the trees as if they were hit by a sudden, hard frost. The leaves never grew back after spring turned the corner in 1918.

Frank Burkardt, a coal miner, said on the witness stand that varnish on the wood facing the mill turned white and silver and “rough like sandpaper.”

Hans Spence, a lumberman and bookkeeper who lived a half-mile away from the Burkhardts, described the smoke in harsher detail when he testified for the plaintiffs.

“If a particle fell on your lips, you would think your lips were pinched by – well, I don’t know - just like the prick of a pin or needle; and then you feel a choking sensation almost (as soon as) you get the fumes in your throat or into your nose,” Spence said.

When the mill’s smelters flared, Mamie Burkhardt claimed she was sickened to the extent that she needed to stay in bed for as long as three days, the court record indicates.

She said she suffered “horseness and roughness in the throat” to where she “could hardly speak above a whisper.” She also described soreness in her chest, a rattling in her lungs, a hacking cough and weight loss.

“The doctors told me to get out of (Donora), not live there in those fumes,” she said.

Another neighbor, Mary Datsko, testified that she suffered similar health problems, and felt at times that she had a stone in her breast.

“You can’t stand nothing, you feel like dead,” she told the court.

At one point, the mill’s attorney, Samuel McCay, approached the bench and suggested those breathing problems were the result smoke from trains and Donora being prone to foggy weather.

He further argued that the trees likely died because the ground was covered with “rubbish and tops of beer bottles, all kinds of stuff.”

He presented just one witness, zinc mill foreman R.G. Johnston, who did little more than confirm the existence of the zinc smelters. Meanwhile, there is no evidence in the record that the plaintiff’s attorney asked Johnston any questions, or presented any motions before the court seeking a chemical analysis of what the mill was discharging into the air.

The jury found the mill guilty and awarded $500 in damages to the Burkhardts, who had already moved nearly 15 miles north to cleaner air in Elizabeth Borough. That sum would amount to nearly $10,000 today.

The mill appealed the verdict all the way to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, which upheld the verdict because the company never presented any evidence to dispute the Burkhardt’s allegations.

And nothing would be done to curtail the smoke for another four decades.

Click here to return to Part I, A borough rises from hell's bottoms.

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