The Smog Museum: Clean Air Started Here

In 1948, a small town in western Pennsylvania shocked the world when pollution-laced smog killed at least 20 people and sickened thousands. Sixty years later, townspeople want everyone to remember this environmental disaster and the good that has come from their great loss. The Allegheny Front's Ann Murray has their story.

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OPEN: In 1948, a small town in western Pennsylvania† shocked the world when pollution-laced smog killed at least 20 people and sickened thousands. Sixty years later, townspeople want everyone to remember this environmental disaster and the good that has come from their great loss. The Allegheny Front's Ann Murray has their story.†

MURRAY:†Don Pavelko is pleased to have an audience for the town's most compelling tale:elevenñyear-old Dakota Johnston has wandered into his small storefront museum in Donora, Pennsylvania. Hundreds of images and artifacts line the walls. Pavelko begins with an old aerial photograph of Donora.

PAVELKO:See where all that smoke is right there?

JOHNSTON: Yeah.

PAVELKO:That was the zinc works. That was the main culprit.

MURRAY: The toxic smoke from that zinc plant was the culprit in a 1948 disaster that†claimed 20 lives and made thousands of people sick in tiny Donora.††Pavelko, a town councilman, was born eight years later. He says growing up nobody talked about what happened when†a thick yellow smog hung over the†valley for five straight days and left the town with a trail of bodies.

PAVELKO: It was sorta a black eye to Donora.I always heard let it die. Let it die.

MURRAY: But Pavelko and some other townspeople†want the world to remember. They recently opened the Donora Smog Museum†because they believe something positive came out of this†tragedy. To make the case, Pavelko walks outside. The sun glistens off a flaming orange sign that reads, "Clean Air Started Here."

PAVELKO: We here in Donora say this episode was the beginning of the environmental movement. These folks gave their lives so we can have clean air.

MURRAY: The Donora smog tragedy - the worst environmental air pollution disaster in US history - let the public know that industrial pollution could kill. It eventually led to the Clean Air Act.†Before that, people in mill towns like Donora lived under blankets of dirty air. A photograph in the window of the museum shows mourners at the gravesite of one of the victims of the†smog. Smoke†from the zinc plant and steel mill continues to plume above them.†Charles Stacey, who spent the past year assembling old newspaper clippings and maps for the Smog Museum, remembers the time when†scenes like these weren't ironic.

STACEY: Many times, we walked to school, we could barely see where we were going but we didn't pay that much attention because it happened all the time.

MURRAY: Developing countries, says Devra Davis, still have lessons to learn from Donora. Davis, an epidemiologist, grew up in Donora and was two when the killer smog hit. She's the author of When Smoke Ran Like Water, a National Book Award finalist about Donora and other industrial disasters.

DAVIS: When I gave my first talk about this internationally, two young colleagues came up.† One from China and one from Mexico. They said we have Donoras happening now in China and Mexico. If people understand if this happened to you, then we will be able to do better to help our people.

MURRAY: Don Pavelko is proud of his town's legacy. Back inside the museum, he shows Dakota Johnston an old oxygen tank. The same tank a firefighter carried through the dark streets of Donora to help citizens survive the smog that put pollution control on the map.

PAVELKO: That's why you got clean air. You might have to worry about a few other things but you don't have to worry about polluted air like you did back then.
JOHNSTON: †That's good.

MURRAY: For The Allegheny Front, this is Ann Murray.