The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The air pollution disaster that echoes in the Ohio train derailment

What is an industry-made disaster, and what is caused by factors like weather?

Smoke rises from a derailed cargo train in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 4. (Dustin Franz/AFP/Getty Images)
8 min

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.

Earlier industries in iron, glass and coal and later in cotton laid the foundations for the post-Civil War ascendancy of steel manufacturing in the region. This heritage in industry and steel, along with the geographical promise of the Ohio River Valley, spurred the development of a smattering of small locales along these waterways. The dispersion of these industrial centers and their independent political identities often obscure their connection to one another and to the larger region.

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.

The acidic haze trapped in their section of the Mon Valley burned the eyes and throats of those who inhaled it. The scale of those in respiratory distress soon overwhelmed hospitals. A temporary relief hospital went up while first responders went door to door rationing a supply of oxygen. Poor visibility prevented residents from navigating the streets to escape. Pedestrians with flashlights had to guide emergency vehicles. By the early morning of Oct. 30, the smog claimed its first fatality. By the end of the day, it had killed 17 more locals. A basement became a temporary morgue.

Initially, American Steel & Wire deflected blame for the suspicious smog and refused to cease operations. With seven of the eight city council members employed by the company, the government also hesitated to shut down the industrial giant. On Oct. 31, the smokestacks finally halted, and rain helped wash away the smog’s remnants. Altogether, the fatal fog lingered for five days, taking 20 lives.

Early on, residents of Donora and Webster understood the Donora Zinc Works differentiated their killer smog from nonlethal smog elsewhere in the Mon Valley. They recognized the adverse impact of the Zinc Works’ pollution for years, at the time alleging the constant smog stripped the paint off homes and made the river uninhabitable to marine life near the mills. American Steel & Wire similarly acknowledged this with a proposal to update the facility and moderate the level of pollutants pumped into the atmosphere. When projections deemed the effort too costly, it scrapped the plan one month before the deadly smog appeared.

In the following months, company, local and federal officials opened investigations into the smog’s high mortality. Federal investigators eventually found that nearly half of residents had fallen ill, but many had originally underreported their symptoms to company and local government investigators. American Steel & Wire endeavored to escape liability in its investigation by emphasizing the role of weather, geography and individual comorbidities in creating what they argued was “an act of God.” When federal investigators adopted the weather-centered explanation in their 1949 report, it became widely accepted.

Donora residents interviewed by NPR recalled the community’s urge to forget what happened in October 1948. Historians clarify that they “could not afford” to talk about the smog. American Steel & Wire not only provided the community with its primary employment, but also held extraordinary power over the people’s lives. In the end, the Donora Zinc Works remained in operation for a decade after the smog until a plunge in metal prices shuttered the outdated smelter in 1957. A Mon Valley newspaper encouraged residents of Webster and Donora not to meet the news with too much dismay: “The Zinc Works may have cost the valley more jobs than it ever supplied.”

The fallout of Donora opened the conversation on the impact of industrial air pollution upon public health, inaugurating a tradition of health-centered research on the effects of air pollution. Four years later, another lethal smog killed thousands of Londoners in a five-day assault. At this point, the threat of air pollution spurred political action, and Congress passed the first federal legislation on air pollution in 1955. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh eventually confirmed that Donora residents disproportionately suffered death from cardiovascular disease and cancer compared to elsewhere in the Mon Valley. The Clean Air Act of 1963 soon became the first federal effort to control air pollution. In the 21st century, efforts to remember the smog culminated in the creation of the Donora Smog Museum. A sign above the door reads, “Clean Air Started Here.”

Though Donora’s story garnered national attention, the Zinc Works primarily escaped public scrutiny beyond the local level. Historian Lynne Page Smith argues that the concentration on the inversion distorted the “boundaries between what is human agency and what truly is a natural disaster.” As recently as 2019, residents of Donora remained in a litigation battle with the extant U.S. Steel for the contamination caused by the Zinc Works over its 42 years of operation in the early 20th century — though experts from U.S. Steel argued that there were “numerous other potential sources” for the metals alleged to have contributed to the health problems. Air pollution still wreaks havoc on the air quality of the Mon Valley, forcing residents indoors whenever an air inversion rolls through.

When residents returned to East Palestine last week, speculation swelled about Norfolk Southern’s culpability for what some have called a predictable catastrophe. Newly elected Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) publicly accused Norfolk Southern of mishandling the cleanup to reopen its rail lines. Shapiro’s administration should be familiar with Donora — Pennsylvania’s second lady, Blayre Davis, is a native of the town. As the fallout of the East Palestine derailment continues into coming weeks, months and years, the Donora Smog of 1948 reminds us that the profit-driven motives of industrial corporations explicitly conflict with the environmental and public health interests for which we entrust them.