a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Sunday, February 27, 2011

You can thank my hometown for cleaner air

An illustration from the late 1940s showing the extent to which air pollution from steel and zinc mills in Donora, Pa., had defoliated the hillsides and farms across the Monongahela River in Webster.

By Scott Beveridge

WEBSTER, Pa. – A story I have often repeated about the prejudice folks expressed about my hometown involved an awkward date three decades ago with an upper-class young woman from a "better" part of town.

We were in our early 20s and hanging in her fancy ranch home in a pricey Rostraver Township neighborhood when she decided to introduce me to her father.

I reached out my hand to shake his, as did he mine, and then he paused and asked me where I lived.

"Webster," I responded, before he rudely withdrew from the handshake and walked away.

Needless to say he set the tone for my having had a short-lived relationship with that family, and I likely can sigh in relief, today, for that.

So the news today that Webster, and its neighboring town of Donora, have been deemed eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Districts, can allow residents of these neighborhoods to stand a bit taller in this neck of the Monongahela River Valley.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission recently gave preliminary approval for them to qualify for the distinction after the state agency rediscovered the dramatic story about the killer smog of 1948. More than 20 people died and thousands of others were sickened when a thick smog settled over the Northeast and trapped toxic steel and zinc mill pollution over the towns that Halloween weekend.

Webster residents reacted by launching an antipollution crusade, which became an impetus for the nation's first federal clean air laws.

Under the leadership of local restaurant owner Abe Celapino, Webster neighbors organized the Society for Better Living in a charter approved in 1949 by the Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas. Among its goals were to conserve soil, real estate and plant life in Webster, and to seek the "elimination of poison gases and pollution of the air," the charter indicates.

U.S. Steel, the owner of the Donora mills, eventually settled a string of federal lawsuits filed by the smog victims, taking responsibility for the damages, and then the story faded away, only to resurface every time another 10 years were tagged onto the anniversary of the smog.

It wouldn't receive significant attention until a U.S. Public Heath Service historian, Lynne Page Snyder, decided in the early 1990s to look into the smog for her post-graduate studies. She concluded that the thousands of pages of court documents in the Donora case, as well as another downriver in Clairton, enrolled enough people to get science involved in seeking air pollution limits

Before the 1990s were out, fluoride pollution investigator Chris Bryson cited Snyder's research in an article for the Earth Island Journal that federal records on the smog had turned up missing. Regardless, Bryson wrote, the "lessons learned at Donora resulted in the passage of the 1955 Clean Air Act."

Despite the haters of Donora and Webster, everyone in America can thank those who came before us here for our having cleaner air to breathe.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was born in Donora 1949 and grew up there. I remember visitng my Aunt who lived 8th and McKean in a dirty smoky part of town near the zinc works. No one ever told us that orange fog was full of acid, I always asumed it was "like a rainbow" a thing of nature. I never ever heard anything about the air pollution until I was in High School and friends in Ohio showed me how Donora was famous as it was always referenced in books in the index under "smog." I would like to read more of your work, but I would rather deal with you directly rather than buy your books at borders or Amazon.

All those years, the Donora people always pointed at Webster as the end of the line. After reading for years now about the disaster, especially Devra Davis book "When Smoke Ran Like Water"
it all begins to fit together. I have some insights you may want to hear about. I worked on the barges (for John Pauk Getty's Consolidated Coal) for 4 or 5 months in 1972 on the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio River. Also went down the Mississippi for Ohio Barge Lines...Now I am a financial planner in the DC area, and could possibly provide you with some material. I must say the letter that is on the websight that the woman from Webster wrote the morning after 20 people perished in Donora/Webster says it better than any book ever written. I wondered how long that letter sat in a drawer or file cabinet and was ignored. Keep up the great writing, you are telling our story for us all. I am sorry we ever said any disparaging remarks about Webster. Do you remember the sign on 51 that read "DONORA, next to your town, the best town in the USA" I remember reading that sign as a child and thinking, "Hey, that means Donora is the worst town in the country because everyone else's would be better." I sometimes wonder if anyone else ever has had that thought.

take care