We roll up in a tour bus to the white bones of what used to be a zinc plant in Donora, Pa. We pass the vacant lot where the steel mill was. Both industrial plants shut down decades ago, so it’s hard now to imagine this dull place as the epicenter of a world-famous tragedy.
We heard about it over the PA system on the way in.
The dangerous, yellow fog “settles down on the industrial town of Donora, Pennsylvania, and brings with it mysterious death,” the old newsreel blared. “Residents have difficulty in breathing the murky air.”
We arrive at the Smog Museum in the small town outside of Pittsburgh. The somber place, now bustling with visitors, marks the time nearly 70 years ago when dozens of people dropped dead in a polluted inversion. Inside, after listening for awhile, I discovered its important connection to Utah and its inversions.
The Smog Museum, maintained by the Donora Historical Society, is one of the few storefronts on the town’s main drag that’s not a thrift shop or empty. In better days, locals came inside for chow mein.
Now, the place is covered with yellowed newspaper clippings and random symbols of Donora’s heyday. Here’s a snapshot of a company picnic. There’s a photo of nurses tending the sick and an old oxygen tank that pumped clean air into smog victims.
“Unfortunately, at that time, we were just accustomed to it,” says Charles Stacey, a retired teacher who volunteers at the museum and who was a high school senior that fall. “It burned your throat a little bit more this time and it lasted longer.”
1948 was a time when Donorans were proud to be part of the great industrial engine that was rebuilding America after World War II.
“They had the big Halloween parade, and I stood right out in front of the building and could barely see the people across the street,” he recalls.
That weekend, the same thing happened in Donora that happens every winter here: A layer of warm air trapped cold, dirty air on the valley bottom. Only, there in Donora, on the Monongahela River, smokestack pollution built up to deadly levels. The poison fog got so thick, people couldn’t see where they were walking.
A crowd showed up anyhow for high school football.
“During the course of the game,” Stacey begins, “announcements were made over the P.A. system. ‘So-and-so is wanted home.’ And many of them went home and found a member of their family severely ill and, in some cases, people had died. “
It sounds like a living hell. Stacey remembers the doctor he calls a “hero” who told everyone to leave town. The hotel basement became a morgue, and undertakers ran out of caskets.
Twenty-seven people died that weekend and almost twice that many in the month after. Hundreds got sick, and later reports say the death rate in the area was high for another decade.
Stacey’s trying to show me something in a murky photo, but it’s hard to make out.
“Look in the background, all of that smoke and fog and so forth,” he says. “The more I think of it, the more I'm surprised I survived this long.”
There’s never been a report about Utah having a killer inversion like Donora’s, but the Wasatch Front was a lot like the Pennsylvania industrial town back then. Winter smog episodes along the Wasatch Front were dreadful during inversions, thanks largely coal-fired emissions from to Geneva Steel, electric power plants and Kennecott Copper’s smelter and refinery.
But air quality here has improved a lot since then, and Donora has a lot to do with it.
“People looked at the smog disaster as sort of an embarrassment, as sort of a tragedy that you don't want to revisit,” says Brian Charlton, another docent at the Smog Museum. “It was a black eye for Donora, having this hanging over their head.”
Charlton tells visitors how people endured the pollution because they needed those paychecks to feed their families. They couldn’t bring themselves to talk about the pollution for decades. Even after London’s Great Smog killed thousands. And even after Congress passed America’s first clean-air law.
“What do you think the lessons are for a place like Salt Lake City, which is still grappling with this problem?” I asked him.
“I don't know that we could tell you guys in Salt Lake,” he says, “because you have your own unique geography and topography. We can't give you any good advice.”
But Donora’s shame ultimately led to action across America, even in places as far away as Utah.
“Donora and the London fog and some of these other catastrophic pollution events were really what started everyone looking at what what's the link between air pollution and health,” says Kerry Kelly, a University of Utah air pollution researcher.
Kelly’s one of the scientists trying to understand why, now that the big industrial polluters are gone, smog still settles here in northern Utah for days and sometimes weeks each winter. She says solutions are tough now because most pollution comes from millions of tailpipes and furnaces in homes and businesses.
“You can't just point to one or two industries and shut it down and fix the problem,” she says. “It is really everyone's responsibility. And I think that is one of the biggest challenges we face.”
Here’s another way to put it: Our way of living is harming us, and improvements are still needed for truly healthy air, even during inversions. It’s not much different than the conflict faced by people in Donora so many years ago.
“Our moniker is ‘Clean air started here’,” says museum volunteer Mark Pawelec. “And so, from that standpoint, yeah, we do feel like we had a part in helping shape the environmental world, you know, that we're living in now and trying to still shape it, I guess.”
He says that gives the Donora tragedy enduring meaning.
“There was going to be environmental disaster somewhere that was going to bring, you know, people's attention to the fact that we need to protect the environment that we live in, right? It just so happened it happened here in Donora in 1948.”
The skies are healthier in Utah now than they were back in 1948.
But Pawelec hopes that the lessons of Donora don’t fade with the passage of time, that people remember the lives lost so that others do whatever’s needed to keep their air clean.