Return now to pre-EPA daysThere are 16 senators co-sponsoring a bill to effectively abolish the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Perusing the list, one finds that most of them come from bucolic locales in the rural West, Midwest and South. One of them should know better — Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch was born in Pittsburgh, but spirited off to Utah at an impressionable age, although he did return to go to Pitt law school.
By: By Dale McFeatters, The Dickinson Press
There are 16 senators co-sponsoring a bill to effectively abolish the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Perusing the list, one finds that most of them come from bucolic locales in the rural West, Midwest and South.
One of them should know better — Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch was born in Pittsburgh, but spirited off to Utah at an impressionable age, although he did return to go to Pitt law school.
Pittsburgh up until the late ‘50s was a testament to what life without an EPA would be like. If there was a source of pollution to be had, Pittsburgh had it — vast steel complexes, coalmines, chemical plants, railroads and the robber barons who ran them.
My family lived at the top of a cliff overlooking the downtown. A regular pastime on an overcast night was to walk up to the overlook and watch the steel furnaces blast flame, smoke and soot high into the air until it looked like the whole sky was in flames. The coke ovens produced rich overtones of sulfur in its various forms.
Only the foolhardy bought white cars and only the very rich or very stubborn painted their houses white because the sulfur dioxide reacted with the chemicals in the paint to produce blotchy black stains; it was like mold, only without the necessity of water.
White-collar workers really did take an extra shirt to the office on certain days because by early afternoon the first shirt would be lightly dusted with soot.
“Smog” is the light pollution that Los Angeles has. In Pittsburgh, during a good winter inversion, it would be nighttime all day, sometimes for several days. Cars had to use their headlights; the streetlights were on; and you had the benefit of the winter solstice in Nome without the cold.
In 1948, a smog in Donora, just down the river, killed 20 people right away and dozens of others more slowly. If the 16 senators had their way, the official government response would be: What do you expect living next to a zinc plant? Saving their lives would be a “job-killing measure.”
The dead hand of federal regulation had yet to forestall the more exciting industrial accidents. We were at our perch on the hilltop minutes after the big passenger steamer Island Queen blew up in 1947, killing 21, and taking the rest of the day to burn to its water line.
A year earlier, the nine-level Wabash railroad terminal burned down, taking two weeks to do it. The smell of tons and tons of charred and rotting produce lingering for months was exotic even by Pittsburgh standards.
My grandmother used to tell us how she and her friends would ice skate down Chartiers Creek from Carnegie to McKees Rocks (yeah, even Pittsburghers think the name is funny). I doubt that many people who weren’t her contemporaries believed her because the creek by then was a dull reddish brown and never froze; it was effectively antifreeze from all the pollution.
Neither did the Monongahela, one of Pittsburgh’s three rivers, freeze during my time there. It was front-page news when it finally did, as it was when someone caught an actual fish in another river, the Allegheny.
As a reporter, I wrote about a chemical-sludge impoundment, another ill-regulated endeavor that burst its earthen dam and poured into Bear Creek and thence into the Allegheny. The chemical sludge and the creek, which has the pH of stomach acid, combined to create suds three and four stories high across the entire river when the whole mess went over the Allegheny dams.
The dead hand of federal regulation was also kept from the strip miners, who would take the coal and walk away, leaving behind only a shell company, scalped land marked by dangerous manmade cliffs and creeks that flowed bright orange, brighter even than an aging politician’s hair.
I was a kid at the time and it all seemed the natural order of things. When I went volcano watching in Hawaii, I was immediately reminded of a chain of rail cars from the mills dumping burning slag down the cliffs that had built up over the years.
Somehow I don’t think those 16 senators have thought this deregulation thing through; certainly they don’t intend any of the consequences coming to their backyard.
McFeatters writes for Scripps Howard News Service.