The 1948 Donora Smog and the birth of air quality regulations

lunch time smog

Sixty-seven years ago today, residents of Donora, a town of around 14,000 lying along Monongahela River some 24 miles downstream of Pittsburgh, woke up to find a dense, yellow smog had blanketed the town. Donorans were accustomed to such smogs, as the town lay in a river valley ringed by hills that could reach up to 400 feet high. During the “smog season,” pollution from the industrial base of the city – including a steel mill and a zinc works – would collect in this natural depression and develop into smog until changes in meteorological conditions (shifting winds, rainfall) would dissolve the cloud.

But that didn’t happen on October 27. Or October 28, 29, or 30. Instead, a strong atmospheric inversion, which occurs when a blanket of lighter, warmer air flows in over heavier, colder air, sealed the smog in place. As this happened, emissions from the town’s factories, which included sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, and flourine gas, continued to accumulate near the surface, instead of dissipating into the atmosphere. As the days passed, this blanket of toxic smog engulfing the town continued to get thicker and more noxious.

Given the prevailing views of the day, which suggested that air pollution was just a necessary byproduct of industrial progress, Donorans continued to go on with their lives. The high school football team played its home game that Friday; the Donora and Monongahela teams simply adjusted their tactics, with neither team throwing the ball. And the town even carried on with its Halloween festivities as planned. Workers at the steel and zinc mills continued to show up to work, despite the fact that they were producing the toxic emissions enveloping the town. The owners of the zinc works and steel mill rejected initial requests to shut down the factory as the days went by, and only agreed to cut back production on Halloween. This step occurred just as a storm blew into the area, helping to break the inversion and clear the air of the pollution.

All told, at least 20 people died during the smog, and, in the coming months, 50 more people died in the town than would have been expected under normal circumstances. But almost no one escaped the legacy of the smog, even those who did not succumb to its immediate impacts. The official epidemiological study conducted in the aftermath of the event concluded that “15.5 per cent of the total populace in the area were mildly affected; 16.8 per cent, moderately affected; and 10.4 per cent, severely affected.” The town’s overall mortality rate remained elevated for a decade or more. Relatively little changed for Donora or the country in the short-term. The town’s steel and zinc plants largely avoided being held liable, as investigators placed the blame on the extreme meteorological conditions that occurred. Whereas residents sued the steel plant for more than $4.5 million, U.S. Steel eventually settled for just $256,000, less than 6% of the damages sought.

To this day, the Donora smog remains less well-known than the Great London Smog of 1952, which, given that it affected a major metropolis, killed far more people (perhaps 12,000) and garnered considerably more attention. But Donora did lay the groundwork for air quality regulations in the United States. According to the Pittsburgh Gazette, Allegheny County regulated pollution for the first time the following year, and the passage of the 1955 U.S. Air Pollution Control Act, “the first federal legislation to recognize pollution as a problem,” can be linked to Donora (UPDATE: Per Ben Ross, author of The Polluters: The Making of Our Chemically Altered EnvironmentO, the 1955 Air Pollution Control Act was not the first federal bill to address air pollution. That can be traced back to the 1910 Organic Act, which created the Bureau of Mines. In fact, he noted, the 1955 act was a step backwards from the 1910 law in certain regards). The town’s museum commemorating the smog bears a sign proclaiming that “Clean Air Started Here,” while the town’s historical marker notes that “major federal clean air laws became a legacy of this environmental disaster.” Just as we think of the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969 as the impetus for the 1972 Clean Water Act (a story which is largely a fable), we should turn to Donora as we commemorate the 45th anniversary of the 1970 Clean Air Act Amendments that helped to end the legacy of these toxic smogs.

PD editorial on Obama’s climate plan is lazy, wrong & shortsighted

President Obama wipes his brow while delivering his climate speech at Georgetown University on June 25 (courtesy of The Atlantic Wire).

President Obama wipes his brow while delivering his climate speech at Georgetown University on June 25 (courtesy of The Atlantic Wire).

Last Sunday (June 30), the editorial board of The Plain Dealer published an editorial titled “Don’t bypass Congress on climate-change policy,” which criticized President Obama’s climate policy speech at Georgetown on June 25. In the piece, the board argued that the President is acting inappropriately by taking executive action to tackle the US’s greenhouse gas emissions through the Environmental Protection Agency. They note that the proposed regulations on GHG emissions from existing coal-fired power plants would “drive many of them out of business.” They continued:

Such plant closures would disproportionately hurt coal-dependent states such as Ohio. It is unfair to expect one region or small group of states to shoulder the chief economic impacts of a radical policy shift without subsidies or offsets.

An extreme U.S. policy aimed at divesting the nation from coal-fired energy should not be decided by the White House alone.

Unfortunately for the PD editorial board (and the public in Northeast Ohio it’s supposed to inform), this argument is a house of cards that one can easily dissect. So allow me to do so.

First, the board refers to the proposal as one of the “mandates that need no congressional approval” of which Americans must be “wary.” Nowhere in the piece does the board mention the fact that in Massachusetts et al. v. EPA (2007, PDF) the US Supreme Court ordered the EPA to determine if carbon dioxide constitutes a danger to public health in the country, the so-called “endangerment finding”. Justice Stevens, writing for the majority, noted that:

Because greenhouse gases fit well within the [Clean Air] Act’s capacious definition of “air pollutant,” EPA has statutory authority to regulate emission of such gases…

On December 7, 2009, the EPA issued the results of its endangerment finding, noting that

the current and projected concentrations of the six key well-mixed greenhouse gases…in the atmosphere threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations.

Yet, despite this judicial ruling that EPA regulate GHGs, the editorial board makes no reference to the jurisprudence or the endangerment finding. It treats the President’s actions as if they were capricious and unexpected, rather than mandated by the highest court of the land.

Bipartisanship & consensus are to the PD editorial board as the ring was to Gollum (courtesy of Wikicommons).

Bipartisanship & consensus are to the PD editorial board as the ring was to Gollum (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Secondly, the editorial board criticized the President for not working towards the consensus it reveres so highly. “Consensus” and “bipartisanship” are the buzzwords of the day for the Very Serious Persons who sit on editorial boards around the country. Yes, if only President Obama could reach out to Congressional Republicans and bring them to the table on climate action.

Of course, this belief completely belies reality. The modern Republican Party is the only opposition party in the world that steadfastly denies climate science. Moreover, the party remains completely obsequious to the fossil fuel industry. According to a recent study from the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, 411 elected officials around the country have signed a pledge to the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity promising to avoid taking action on climate change.

Furthermore, while VSPs at the PD and The Washington Post continue to write ballads about their fantasy carbon tax, recent evidence suggests that the EPA route may be the better alternative. A report from Resources for the Future suggests that, depending on the details, EPA regulation would likely be more effective at reducing GHG emissions than a carbon tax. This is particularly true, given the carbon tax that would likely come out of the current Congress – none.

Thirdly, the PD editorial board asserts, without providing any evidence, that the President’s climate plan will necessitate “sweeping economic sacrifice” and will change the “lifestyles and energy sources” of Ohioans.  Once again, the board refused to let fact get in the way of a [not so] good argument.

For decades, industry shills and their supporters have cried out against EPA regulations, claiming they would destroy the American economy. Yet, in case after case, the benefits of these regulations have far exceeded estimates, while the costs have been vastly lower than projected. The Edison Electric Institute claimed (PDF) that the 1990 Clean Air Act (CAA) amendments would carry $4-5 billion in annual compliance costs. The actual annual cost? $836 million. They were only off by 81.4%. According to a 2010 study, the benefits of the CAA and the 1990 amendments outweighed the costs by a ratio of 32.1 to 1 ($23.42 trillion in benefits to $730 billion in costs).

The monetized costs and benefits of the Clean Air Act and its 1990 amendments. As the table shows, the benefits of the CAA have vastly outweighed its costs (courtesy of Small Business Majority).

The monetized costs and benefits of the Clean Air Act and its 1990 amendments. As the table shows, the benefits of the CAA have vastly outweighed its costs (courtesy of Small Business Majority).

A recent study from the Natural Resources Defense Council suggest that EPA regulations on GHG emissions will once again provide a significant net benefit. In December, NRDC put together a proposed set of regulations for EPA to implement. This plan would set state-by-state emissions reductions standards, allowing coal-dependent states like Ohio to make a more gradual shift to more renewable energy sources. According to their assessment, the plan would reduce GHG emissions by 26% by 2020; its benefits would be roughly 6 to 15 times greater (PDF) than its associated costs.

NRDC recently had a respected firm run an economic assessment of this plan (PDF). The firm, Synapse Energy Economics, found that, contrary to the warnings of the naysayers at the PD, this plan would create 210,000 jobs and reduce electric bills by $0.90 per month through 2020.

Graph from Synapse Energy Economic's report on the NRDC policy proposal. As the graph shows, Ohio is projected to gain the second most jobs from EPA action (courtesy of Synapse Energy Economics).

Graph from Synapse Energy Economic’s report on the NRDC policy proposal. As the graph shows, Ohio is projected to gain the second most jobs from EPA action (courtesy of Synapse Energy Economics).

Ohio, one of the 14 states included in the analysis, would particularly benefit. The state would gain an additional 12,000 jobs – second only to Florida – and households would pay $1.03 less per month for electricity. Moreover, these regulations would simply speed up the transition away from coal that the state is already making. Under SB 221, Ohio is already obligated (PDF) to improve its energy efficiency by 22.2% and get 12.5% of its energy from renewable energy sources. Rather than increasing prices or killing jobs, a study from Ohio State has concluded that the policy saved ratepayers $170 million on their electric bills from 2008-2012 and created 3,200 jobs in the state.

Lastly – and unsurprisingly, given Ohio’s fealty to the coal industry – the editorial fails to mention any of the serious consequences of the state’s dependence on coal. A myriad of studies shows that coal carries significant costs for public health and well-being. According to a 2011 research article (PDF),

the life cycle effects of coal and the waste stream generated are
costing the U.S. public a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually.

If we were to internalize these externalities, the authors estimate that the price of coal-fired electricity would double or triple, making it noncompetitive with renewables. The Clean Air Task Force has concluded (PDF) that coal plants are responsible for 13,200 premature deaths, 20,400 heart attacks, and 217,600 asthma attacks annually in the US. Given Ohio’s dependence on this filthy fuel, the state ranked 2nd in 2010 for in coal-related mortality risk, hospital admissions, and heart attacks. The Cleveland metro area ranked 8th for mortality. All in all, evidence suggests that, for every $1 in economic benefits from coal, it carries $2 in costs to the public.

Mortality per 100,000 people from coal-fired power plants. As the map illustrates, coal-dependent states and their neighbors, including Ohio, suffer substantially from its effects (courtesy of the Clean Air Task Force).

Mortality per 100,000 people from coal-fired power plants. As the map illustrates, coal-dependent states and their neighbors, including Ohio, suffer substantially from its effects (courtesy of the Clean Air Task Force).

The Plain Dealer‘s editorial is just the latest in a series of inaccurate claims that EPA regulations will doom the American economy. They have proven wrong, time and again, and the PD will almost certainly be wrong here. The editorial is inaccurate, shortsighted, and – to be frank – an extremely lazy argument. As President Obama said in his climate speech,

[T]he problem with all these tired excuses for inaction is that it suggests a fundamental lack of faith in American business and American ingenuity. These critics seem to think that when we ask our businesses to innovate and reduce pollution and lead, they can’t or they won’t do it. They’ll just kind of give up and quit. But in America, we know that’s not true.

The next time the PD wants to write about climate policy, I suggest the editorial board actually does its homework, rather than relying on a tired set of easily disproved talking points.