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Donora smog debate: How far have we come?

| Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013, 12:31 a.m.

Air quality has come a long way since a cloud of soot suffocated the town of Donora in October of 1948 – or has it?

That was the main topic of debate Wednesday afternoon at a public town hall event commemorating the 65th anniversary of the environmental disaster that killed 20 residents and sickened more than 7,000.

As part of a weeklong remembrance, a panel of experts took questions from more than 50 residents and students of nearby Ringgold High School at the Donora Municipal Building.

Moderated by Steve Bullik of the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, the following offered opinions on current environmental issues: Chatham University senior scholar Dr. Patricia DeMarco, Washington & Jefferson College Director of Environmental Studies Dr. Robert East, Carnegie Mellon University Professor Neil Donahue, and Consol Energy Vice President of Research and Development Steve Winberg.

“I think the panel talked about the importance of remembering the past but also to take a look at current environmental issues and how we move forward,” Bullick said afterward.

“I think the diversity on the panel showed the different pieces of that puzzle. And the students, who are the future, need to understand the complexity of the problems that existed in the past and the problems they will confront in the future.”

The panel touched on issues from climate change caused by carbon dioxide emissions to genetically modified foods.

But mostly, they debated how technology and the increased worldwide need for energy production have affected air quality.

When one student asked the main source of current air pollution, Donahue said a simple way of answering is “burning stuff,” citing everything from coal-powered plants to vehicle exhaust.

“We certainly do have inexpensive energy, I'm not sure it's low cost,” Donahue said.

“A large chunk of what needs to happen is technological innovation.”

Answering a question from the audience, Winberg said his company has used history as a guide to environmental policy, but it wasn't necessarily “systematic.”

“Our company is 150 years old, so our industry is about equally as old, and we've got a lot of history to look back on and it has guided us to where we are now and where we're going,” Winberg said.

One audience member cited a recent smog crisis in China and asked if humans have really learned anything from history. Winberg said fossil fuels are the least expensive way to produce energy in largely populated countries like China and India, as opposed to the United States.

“I think they're are on a path that's very difficult to deviate from, and that path is using fossil fuels, which raises the bigger debate of energy production with our 320 million people versus the remaining 6.7 billion people in the world,” Winberg said. “What I do know is that technology to reduce emissions will compress the amount of time in those countries to avoid (similar instances).”

At the request of Ringgold history teacher Bill Callaway, Donahue explained to students how a temperature inversion caused the Donora incident. Donahue noted the bend in the Monongahela River captured a “bowl” of cold air on the bottom and hot air at the top.

The sun that day could not burn through the “darkness at noon” while continuing to heat the top of the air.

“(The smog) simply couldn't get out of the Valley until the rain, which in this case, pulled the particles out,” he said.

DeMarco said the United States needs to create a new economy by ceasing the “myth” that changing the way we manufacture energy and products in a cleaner way ultimately costs jobs.

“One of the lessons of Donora hammered home is this concept that if you save the environment you lose jobs, and that's what happened in the Valley,” DeMarco said. “That continues to be one of the major myths that impede our movement to a more energy efficient and sustainable mode of doing business.

“You can clean up the air but you don't solve the underlying problem which is creating energy without pollution.”

After the panel finished, Brian Charlton, curator of the Donora Historical Society, noted that just because most of the air pollution in western Pennsylvania can't be seen, does not mean invisible particulates cannot hurt you.

“One of the things we always tell people visiting the museum is that it's not as if the smog was an event, there was a solution and we no longer have a problem,” Charlton said.

“We tell people this story has not ended yet. We have still, in western Pennsylvania, among the worst air quality in the nation.”

Bullick said a 65-year window between the Donora Smog incident to present day conditions should be viewed as a miniscule sample size and that progress cannot be truly measured in that time frame.

“Change is not that easy, and all you have to do is look at the reinvention of the City of Pittsburgh as a hub of medicine, research and education,” he said. “And it didn't happen without several renaissances and setbacks. We're used to quick fixes in the United States. But there has to be continual progress over time and this is no different. It's really a long, arduous journey.”

Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 724-684-2635.

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