Donora, Pennsylvania is a small town located about 25 miles south of Pittsburgh. Tucked in a valley on the western bank of the Monogahela River, it is a quiet, fairly typical American town. But like another small Pennsylvania town, it played host to a monumental environmental disaster that changed its irrevocably. The event is now known as the Donora Smog Disaster of 1948, and it played a large role in establishing today’s environmental movement.
Roots of a disaster
Donora grew out of several villages established in the valley in the 19th century. It did not become known as Donora until it was incorporated in 1901. The town grew out of industrial interests who sought to utilize the area’s resources. Several companies started operations in the area, including Union Steel Company (later known as the American Steel and Wire Works), the Carnegie Steel Company, the Matthew Woven Wire Fence Company, and the Donora Zinc Works. In addition, the Pennsylvania Railroad expanded rail service into the area.
All of this industry concentrated in the valley led to a boom for the local economy. By 1948, Donora was home to 14,000 people. Thousands more lived in small towns dotting the valley, many of them working in the many factories in Donora. The concentration of heavy industry also spewed pollution into the valley air. Residents had complained long before the 1948 disaster about the air quality and the impact of industrial activity on the environment as a whole. However, the inconvenience was taken with a grain of salt, since most families in the valley depended on those pollution spewing factories for their livelihood.
That is, until October 27, 1948, when a thick blanket of yellow smog descended on Donora. Residents were used to smog, but they had never encountered anything quite like this. The deadly fog blanked the valley for five straight days. As the days wore on, more and more townspeople became sickened by the toxic brew of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and other pollutants. Elderly and those with respiratory ailments were hit the hardest. The local hospital was swamped with patients. An emergency hospital was set up in the Donora Hotel. The lower level of the hotel was converted into a makeshift morgue to handle the influx of bodies.
Emergency responders went door to door, checking on families and offering oxygen to those in need. Town officials met with officials of the Donora Zinc Works, asking the plant to shut down in hopes that a shut down would mitigate the unfolding disaster, but the company refused. When the smog mercifully lifted, 20 people were dead and more than 6,000 had been sickened.
Action in the aftermath
The disaster in Donora put environmental issues into the national consciousness. The following year in Pennsylvania, the state began to study the impact of air pollution on the state. Pennsylvania adopted a clean streams law in 1965 and state wide clean air regulations in 1966. The federal government established the Environmental Protection agency and passed the Clean Air Act in 1970.
Nowadays, Donora no longer finds itself blanketed in smog. It has turned the disaster that killed twenty of its residents into something positive, claiming that it was the birthplace of Clean Air. The air is much cleaner in Donora these days. The heavy industries that belched toxic clouds into the valley air have largely left the area, along with the jobs they provided. Donora is another Rust Belt town struggling to survive in the wake of a slow economic collapse over the last 30+ years. But at least it survived its environmental disaster. Some tiny Pennsylvania burghs were not so lucky.
“The Donora Smog Disaster October 30-31, 1948.” Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission. http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/documents_from_1946_-_present/20426/donora_smog_disaster/999079
Murray, Ann. “Smog Deaths In 1948 Led to Clean Air Laws.” NPR.org. April 22, 2009. National Public Radio. October 12, 2014. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=103359330