On Feb. 3, a train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, about 40 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. Officials undertook a “controlled release” of the hazardous chemicals aboard the train on Feb. 6. The operation was declared a success. But others have noted that a temperature inversion prevented the pollutants from dispersing upward into the atmosphere. Instead, the black mushroom of smoke stretched horizontally, expanding the area of the toxic cloud. By Friday, Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit alleging negligence on the part of the train’s operator, Norfolk Southern Railways. And by Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency had taken control of the response to the situation, pledging to require Norfolk Southern to clean up the contamination.
Seventy-five years ago, a temperature inversion became the center of the worst air pollution disaster in U.S. history. In October 1948, a layer of cold air functioned as a lid, preventing warmer air from escaping the bowl-shaped valley of the Monongahela River. Industrial pollution trapped in the valley spawned a “Killer Smog” over Donora, Pa. Parallels between what happened in Donora and what is happening just 60 miles away, in East Palestine, reveal an extended history of industry and the crises of capitalism in the Ohio River Basin.
The landscape of the Ohio River Valley uniquely shapes the history of this region with no concern for state boundaries or county lines. The Monongahela and Allegheny rivers converge at Pittsburgh, to form the Ohio River. As the “mighty” Mississippi River’s largest tributary, the Ohio River connects Western Pennsylvania to an inland port network from Cincinnati to St. Louis and Nashville to New Orleans. Before railroads, airplanes and interstates, the natural thoroughfares of this river system proved vital to the birth and expansion of the American project. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the confluence of rivers and resources supported the greater Pittsburgh region as arguably one of the most important ports of the American interior.
Nestled on a bend of the Monongahela River 20 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, Donora went by several names before it incorporated in 1900. By 1902, the Carnegie Steel Corp. completed its first facility in Donora. The corporate conglomerate added a zinc smelting works to its Donora operations in 1915. Soon afterward, residents filed a lawsuit complaining of deterioration in their health and the environment of the area. Industry occupied miles of riverfront and pumped streams of toxic gases and heavy metals into the air of Donora and the city of Webster across the river. Still, Donora’s population jumped by nearly threefold with the rise of industry. By the postwar boom of the mid-20th century, roughly half of the town’s then 14,000 residents found employment under the U.S. Steel subsidiary of American Steel & Wire Co.
At the same time, evidence of the dangers of industrial pollution had begun to surface. In 1930, industrial pollution, weather and geography produced a deadly smog in the Meuse Valley of Belgium, killing 63 people. Scientists anticipated that the event could recur with more disastrous results, but their concerns went unheeded. Eighteen years later, Donora residents awoke the morning of Oct. 27, 1948, to an exceptionally thick, yellow smog enveloping the streets.