With Labored Breath: The Polluted Legacy of the Steel Mills

by on September 4, 2018 · 0 comments

in Health, Labor

By Anna Daniels / San Diego Free Press

Braddock Steel Mill, screen shot

For the children of steel

The Atlantic recently ran an article about the long term impacts of the now largely defunct steel industry in Braddock, Pennsylvania. Braddock resident Tony Buba has produced a short documentary about the environmental racism that has created an overlooked health crisis among residents in the area, particularly among African Americans who were segregated in neighborhoods closest to the mills. The incidences of cancer and lung disease are shocking.

For those of us who lived in any one of the mill towns dotting the Monongahela River (Mon Valley) in southwestern Pennsylvania and lost loved ones to those diseases, the statistics are heartbreaking. The Trump administration’s attempts to roll back EPA air pollution standards and bring back asbestos are enraging.

SDFP editor Rich Kacmar (baby). His family’s backyard abutted the railroad tracks beyond which was the steel mill where his father worked.

Everyone of us in my immigrant working class neighborhood was a child of steel.

Carnegie, then USS Steel, operated one of the largest integrated coke and steel manufacturing plants in the world at the Clairton works a few miles aways. They owned the railroads that brought in iron ore and the barges that brought in coal. They were the masters of the river in which they discharged a hot bitches brew of chemicals, the hillsides which sulfur laden rain had denuded of vegetation, the very air we breathed. They employed us, they owned us.

In 1968, when I was a senior in high school we were sent home early because of a particularly bad air inversion, an all too common occurrence caused by weather conditions and pollutants. A stinking fog filled the low space in front of the stage of the enclosed auditorium. Our eyes burned and our lungs stung. Then my pantyhose suddenly became a mass of wide runners. It was happening to the other girls too. Our pantyhose were reduced to a weird webbing on our legs.

By 1968, Pennsylvania had instituted some of the most stringent pollution standards in the country. In 1948 a death fog killed twenty people and sickened seven thousand in the adjacent mill town of Donora. It was the worst air pollution disaster in US history and led to the Clean Air Act.


Climatologists were able to predict when conditions were conducive to an inversion. The Allegheny County Health Department would issue an order for manufacturing plants to shut down operations. USS Steel was seemingly too big to shut down. They opted to pay the fines. And they never invested in modernizing their equipment to conform with environmental standards or to enable them to compete with Japanese specialty steels.

In July of 2018, USS Steel’s Coke Works in Clairton was fined $1,000,000 for violating air quality standards. This is seventy years after the Donora death fog, fifty years after my high school inversion experience.

Although air quality all over the Mon Valley has improved considerably since Pittsburgh’s industrial era, experts and residents around the region have been alarmed by air monitors showing increasing levels of carbon and sulfur dioxide in the last several years.

And now the Trump administration wants to roll back pollution standards instead of enforcing them.

The use of asbestos in the steel industry and power plants continued for decades after the carcinogenic effects were known. The high incidence of mesothelioma in the Mon Valley included women who were not employed in these industries. They were the stay at home moms who raised their families and washed their husbands’ asbestos laden clothes. It was almost humorous, in a teeth clenching kind of way, to hear Trump recently tout the benefits of asbestos and see his face plastered on a Russian asbestos product.

My brother died of mesothelioma in 2010 after a lifetime of exposure to asbestos in his employment with power companies. He won his suit against the company a year before he died. During his weeks of hospice care I had an opportunity to talk at length with the nurses and nurses aides who became a part of our daily life.

They all remarked upon the cases of cancer, particularly pancreatic cancer, that they continued to see among men who had been employed in heavy industry in the area. My Uncle Dick who had worked around acid baths in the steel mill died of pancreatic cancer in the 1950s. My immigrant grandfather who worked in the Duquesne mill died of emphysema when he was sixty-two.

It now feels as though the overlooked health crisis has now compounded into a slow moving genocide against working class men, women and children, and it has sped up within communities of color.

Braddock, which is the setting of the following video, was also the setting for Thomas Bell’s book “Out of This Furnace“. Bell grew up in Braddock and describes depression era life there in this Slovak immigrant community.

Blind, ignorant, obsessed with the myth of their own infallibility–they [ rich and powerful] had been obeyed longer than was good for an human being–they drooled their obscene mumbo-jumbo, witch doctors without faith in their own magic imploring the betrayed to have confidence, the penniless to put their money into circulation, the despoiled to take pride in an America plundered, gutted and laid waste.

This is for the children of steel. “Out of this furnace, this metal.”

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