Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Rules of Business vs Laws of Nature: 1948 Donora Smog

I find it interesting when one event brings an awareness that triggers and reinforces others in quick and overlapping ways.  It can be called serendipity.  For me the collision that I want to share includes E.B. White, Donora, PA and Amy Larkin, the author of Environmental Debt, the Hidden Costs of a Changing Global Economy.

Over the weekend I was reading from a book of essays by E.B. White and happened on an essay, Sootfall and Fallout, which was originally published in the New Yorker in 1956.  The essay played out his growing concern at the time with industrial pollution and global contamination resulting from above ground nuclear testing.  This story penned well before the modern American environmental movement had gathered much momentum and gives an interesting historical perspective.  Some excerpts from the essay give his concerned perspective.

'I think Man's gradual, creeping contamination of the planet, his sending up of dust into the air, his strontium additive in our bones, his discharge of industrial poisons into rivers that once flowed clear, his mixing of chemical with fog on the east wind add up to a fantasy of such grotesque proportions as to make everything said on the subject pale and anemic by contrast.  I hold one share in the corporate earth and am uneasy about the management.' 

'I belong to a small, unconventional school that believes that no rat poison is the correct amount to spread in the kitchen where children and puppies can get at it.  I believe that no chemical waste is the correct amount of discharge into fresh rivers of the world, and I believe that if there is a way to treat fumes from factory chimneys, it should be against the law to set these deadly fumes adrift where they can mingle with fog and, given the right conditions, suddenly turn an area into another Donora, Pa.' 

While I had some sense and historical knowledge of the concerns that E.B. White exposed, I had no knowledge of the chemical fog that enveloped Donora sixty six years ago.  So after a little investigation, I discovered that the tragic events at Donora have been credited with the increased environmental awareness that eventually resulted in the first Clean Air Act in 1963 and its subsequent amendments.  One of the best summary articles, 'A Cloud with a Silver Lining: the Killer Smog in Donora, 1948' tells this story of environmental insensitivity.

Donora at that time was a small, 14,000 resident, steel town with two major mills, American Steel and Wire and Donora Zinc Works, employing 6,500 people, located south of Pittsburgh on the Monongahela River.  For five days, starting on October 26, a temperature inversion trapped all the steel industrial emissions and created a dense, acrid yellowish fog that initially killed 20 people, sickened 6,000 others and left a trail of chronic illness.  Long after the fog was broken on Halloween by a rainstorm, the debate raged over the blame and responsibility.  Some cited nature, the temperature inversion, as the cause and others blamed the businesses for the unhealthy emissions from the mills.  Strange as it may seem even to this day, the reports from the Public Health Service concluded that the deaths and illness in Donora were due to the temperature inversion and seen as a 'freak of nature' while the steel companies called it an 'act of God.'  The steel companies did make some reparations but they never admitted responsibility.

These conflicting and conflicted perspectives are underscored today in Amy Larkin's book that focuses on aligning the rules of business and the laws of nature.  Among many business/environmental topics, she cites air pollution costs in U.S. healthcare as greater than those of tobacco, and as largely a public cost and not one assigned to sources.  This data is hard to understand now that we are fifty years beyond the initial Clean Air Act.  In her Nature means Business Framework, the first principle she advances is that pollution can on longer be free or subsidized.  This is the battlefield where the true cost must be assigned to the source.  Clean air is certainly still one of the challenges of our times.

Donora smog at noon
But let's return to Donora to see how one great nature/business paradox played out.  Not long after the tragic events, families that could evacuate or migrate did, and housing values dropped starting a long decline.  By 1956, the Zinc Works closed and by 1966, after the passage of the first Clean Air Act and numerous labor strikes, the remaining steel plants closed.  Formerly known as the 'Home of Champions' due to athletes like Stan Musial and Ken Griffey, today Donora has been reduced to a struggling community of about 5,000 residents with a monument to the fog in the Donora Smog Museum, and the prospect of further environmental issues related to gas extraction from the Marcellus shale.  As one long time Donora resident stated in an interview for a 2009 NPR story on clean air, 'We here in Donora say this episode was the beginning of the environmental movement. These folks gave their lives so we can have clean air.'

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