Louise Milone is a doctoral candidate studying environmental, industrial, and labor history. Ms. Milone researches the work and living environment of industrial laborers and their families, how that environment informs their decisions about their daily lives as workers and family members. Her dissertation will focus on industrial air pollution, examining the lives of workers in Donora, Pennsylvania, a steel town with a large zinc works. When Donorans woke up on November 1, 1948, 20 of their neighbors were dead and 6,000 of the 13,000 residents were recovering, some still struggling for breath under oxygen tents. The cause of their death and distress – breathing the air of Donora, PA during a six day air inversion. When Donora’s air inversion ended, Donorans buried their dead, tended to their sick, and the men returned to work. The women, accustomed to cleaning filth from every counter, window, and sheet, faced a thicker, wetter mess than usual, and the sulfur smell of sweetened rotten eggs was pervasive. Almost no Donorans chose to question why the smog killed. Donora was a type of company town conceived to meet the needs of industrialists who wanted not only a captured, but also a contented workforce they could rely on for generations. In Donora, they succeeded. They recruited an immigrant workforce that took the risk of leaving their home country, determined at almost any cost to seek a decent life for future generations of their family. In exchange for that dreamed of stable, close knit community life, U.S. Steel expected workers total dedication to their debilitating labor that propelled noxious chemicals into hot, suffocating air, turning their workspace into a deadly environment. Perilous air also belched from the smokestacks, filling Donora’s streets, schools, stores, and houses, continually endangering their families. Still they stayed, and stayed silent.
Since building the first fire, humans have spewed carbon into the air, and yet few industries can compete with steel as a worldwide generator of air pollution. In 2020 alone steel accounted for about nine percent of the carbon humans poured into the air. My dissertation examines the environmental, economic, and social consequences of steel making through its impact on the Monongahela Valley town of Donora in southwest Pennsylvania from 1900 to 2000. Built in a lush Monongahela River Valley farming community by four Gilded Age oligarchs, Donora became notorious in 1948 for an air pollution disaster that killed more than twenty people and injured thousands more, but it was polluted long before then. And, though the mills are long gone, the area’s soil is still poisoned by arsenic, cadmium, and lead, all carcinogens, which were once in its air. All Donorans were aware of the smog the mills generated–it was obvious and everywhere. I’m interested in what US Steel and its workers thought about it, how they experienced it, and what they tried–or failed–to do about it. I am thus researching, for example, early twentieth-century lawsuits that tried to hold US Steel accountable for damage to farms, what US Steel knew about the 1930 smog disaster in Belgium, what–if anything–it might have done to prevent such a disaster here, and the Steelworkers of America’s early environmental efforts.
MA, Georgia State University, 20th Century US 2017