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September 04, 2012

Unregulated Business 101: Donora, PA

The greedy industrialists and financiers that mistake Gordon Gecko for a hero rather than a villian and think Ayn Rand is a serious philosopher rather than a pop novelist loudly decry the role of government, claiming that government regulation impedes their ability to create jobs and distorts the market's wisdom.

A recent study by the manufacturer's trade association claims that government regulation imposes a 6% cost factor on corporate activity. Others suggest that while there is a cost involved with regulatory compliance, the cost is justified by the benefits - saved lives, averted disasters, etc.

How did we get to have government agencies and government regulation? If they're not needed, if business can be trusted to keep the people safe without (shudder) pesky buereaucrats looking over their shoulders and siphoning productivity, how did we get these agencies? Were people stupid way back when?

One of my favorite shibboleths is, The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. Have we forgotten why we have pesky agencies like the EPA, and the evidence that greedy business cannot be trusted to police themselves?

Certainly, you remember the Donora Smog, right here in Pittsburgh, which killed 20 people in 1948. Factories were routinely dumping poisonous chemicals into the air where they would dissipate without immediate, obvious effect until a temperature inversion trapped the toxins in the local area, while the plants kept pumping more.

From Wikipedia,
The smog first rolled into Donora on October 27, 1948. By the follwing day it was causing coughing and other signs of respiratory distress for many residents of the community in the Monongahela River valley. Many of the illnesses and deaths were initially attributed to asthma. The smog continued until it rained on October 31, by which time 20 residents of Donora had died and approximately a third to one half of the town's population of 14,000 residents had been sickened.

Sixty years later, the incident was described by The New York Times as "one of the worst air pollution disasters in the nation's history". Even ten years after the incident, mortality rates in Donora were significantly higher than those in other communities nearby.

Hydrogen Fluoride and Sulfur dioxide emissions from U.S. Steel's Donora Zinc Works and its American Steel & Wire plant were frequent occurrences in Donora. What made the 1948 event more severe was a temperature inversion, in which a mass of warm, stagnant air was trapped in the valley, the pollutants in the air mixing with fog to form a thick, yellowish, acrid smog that hung over Donora for five days. The sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, fluorine and other poisonous gases that usually dispersed into the atmosphere were caught in the inversion and accumulated until the rain ended the weather pattern.

The smog was so intense that driving was nearly abandoned; those who chose to continue driving were risky. “I drove on the left side of the street with my head out the window. Steering by scraping the curb.” recalls one emergency responder.

It was not until the fifth day that a meeting occurred between the operators of the plants and the town officials. Burgess Chambon requested the plants temporarily cease operations. The superintendent of the plants, L.J. Westhaver, said the plants already began to shut down operation at around 6am that morning. With the rain alleviating the smog, the plants resumed normal operation the following morning.

Researchers analyzing the event have focused likely blame on pollutants from the zinc plant, whose emissions had killed almost all vegetation within a half-mile radius of the plant. Dr. Devra L. Davis, director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, has pointed to autopsy results showing fluorine levels in victims in the lethal range, as much as 20 times higher than normal. Fluorine gas generated in the zinc smelting process became trapped by the stagnant air and was the primary cause of the deaths.

Preliminary results of a study performed by Dr. Clarence A. Mills of the University of Cincinnati and released in December 1948 showed that thousands more Donora residents could have been killed if the smog had lasted any longer than it had, in addition to the 20 humans and nearly 800 animals killed during the incident.

The event is often credited for helping to trigger the clean-air movement in the United States, whose crowning achievement was the Clean Air Act of 1970, which required the United States Environmental Protection Agency to develop and enforce regulations to protect the general public from exposure to hazardous airborne contaminants.

Oh, that's how we got the EPA. Wonder why that sort of thing doesn't happen too much anymore? Think we can probably do without the regulatory agency?


Jerry Oser said...

This is good stuff.

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