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~2 The Changing Face of Pittsburgh: A Historical Perspectives Joel Tarr There is probably no place in the nation that can match Pittsburgh' s dramatic changes over the past half-century. It is now a modern, beautiful city, among the most livable in the country, but it was far less livable when it was one of the world's great manufacturing centers. Pittsburgh was a "valley of work" a place associated with industrial might and power, particularly regarding steel production. Issues of environment and public health did not often command high priority. During that time, Pittsburgh was also associated with environmental degra- dation. In 1883, travel writer Willard Glazer wrote: "In truth, Pittsburgh is a smoky, dismal city at her best. At her worst, nothing darker, dingier, or more dispiriting can be imagined." Herbert Spencer, the great British philosopher, who was brought to Pittsburgh by his admirer Andrew Carnegie, put it more suc- cinctly: "Six months' residence in Pittsburgh would justify suicide." What did Pittsburgh actually look like? R.L. Duffus, writing in the Ameri- can Monthly, said: "From whatever direction one approaches the once-lovely conjunction of the Allegheny and the Monongahela, the devastation of progress is apparent. Quiet valleys have been inundated with slag, defaced with refuse, marred by hideous buildings. Streams have been polluted with sewage and waste from the mills. Life for the majority of the population has been rendered unspeakably pinched and dingy. This is what might be called the technological blight of heavy industry." To the casual observer, all of this might seem long gone, replaced by a green and gracious Pittsburgh that's a source of pleasure and pride to its residents. Unfortunately, some of the problems remain. The city' s degraded water and air, for example, although much improved from the past, still present serious issues. There are environmental legacies of past decisions that this generation of Pitts- burghers must now contend with. *This chapter is an edited transcript of Dr. Joel Tarr's remarks at the workshop. 13
4 ENSURING ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH IN POSTINDUSTRIAL CITIES GRIME AND THE RIVERS One of the culprits behind pollution of the rivers, not only in Pittsburgh but other cities throughout the country, was the adoption by many households of the "water closet" the flush toilet and its associated sewer system that carried the toilets' charges to the rivers for disposal. These toilets were obviously much more convenient, efficient, and clean than the "on-site disposal" options privy vaults and cesspools that preceded them. In the 1880s and 1890s throughout the United States, many cities made decisions to move toward the building of underground sewer systems, and between 1880 and 1910 or so, the city of Pittsburgh and others across the nation experienced a great wave of sewer-building. There was also a consensus on the type of sewer system to build in Pittsburgh, as well as other big cities like Chicago, New York, and Boston, the answer was a combined-sewer system. It was "combined" in that it accommodated two basic streams of wastewater: the flow from toilets and other domestic uses; and the voluminous stream of water produced by storms. It's cheaper, obviously, to build one pipe to carry both streams than to build two pipes (one for each of them), and in fact this alternative was hailed as the most economical way to get rid of wastewater and move it out of the city. (Previously, domestic wastewater was disposed of in the preexisting on-site facilities, which were easily overwhelmed.) The decisions about combined-sewer systems still haunt us today they remain in place together with their major shortcoming in a wet-weather situa- tion, the sewage-treatment plants now installed at the end of the line cannot handle the volume. So the stormwater, together with the raw (untreated) domestic wastes it carries, is diverted to other places. In Pittsburgh, those places are its nvers. At the turn of the century, the city built hundreds of sewer outlets that discharged raw sewage directly into all three of its rivers. Pittsburgh was by no means unique in this regard, but the result was that here, as elsewhere, people put their raw sewage into the water bodies that went right by their door, which often meant that populations downstreams were drinking water polluted with sewage. In a few cases, those "others" were us, since there were two Pittsburgh sewage outlets above the city water-intake pipes on the Allegheny River. In addition, a population of approximately 35,000 located upstream from Pitts- burgh on the Allegheny was discharging their raw sewage into the river. Since sewage treatment would not be implemented in Pittsburgh for another 50 years, it was the rivers where untreated wastewater inevitably wound up, whether dur- ing a storm or not. Agitation to remedy this problem began in the early 1890s. Physicians, public-health of finials, sanitarians, and especially women's groups recommended that Pittsburgh begin to filter its water. The city council appointed a commission in 1897 led by Allen Hazen, a famous MIT engineer which in 1899 recom-
THE CHANGING FACE OF PITTSBURGH: A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE 15 mended that Pittsburgh build a slow sand-filtration system. This decision was not implemented until 1907, owing largely to political wrangling, as typical to those times as it is today. Chlorination followed in 1911, and by 1912 the system' s beneficial effects were clear: Pittsburgh' s death rates from typhoid fever were down to the national average, whereas for years before it had led the nation by a wide margin. The problem seemed to have been solved. But not quite. Raw sewage con- tinued to go into the rivers, in spite of the fact that in 1910 the commissioner of health of the state of Pennsylvania, Samuel Dixon, tried to get Pittsburgh to stop. Invoking his authority under the Purity of Waters Act of 1905, he requested that the city begin treating its sewage and also consider getting rid of its combined- sewer system altogether that is, replacing it with two separate systems. Pittsburgh again called in the famous MIT engineers Allen Hazen and colleagues who responded with an emphatic "no." Noting that there wasn't any precedent for a large city to build a sewage-treatment plant for the benefit of downstream cities' water supplies, they concluded that those cities should have to treat their water themselves filter and chlorinate it and that Pittsburgh's rivers could continue to be used for purposes of "dilution" i.e., getting rid of the sewage. The inability of the state to force Pittsburgh to treat its sewage at that time meant that the city disgorged its raw sewage into the rivers until 1958. At that time ALCOSAN (the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority), developed in the period after World War II, brought on line its sewage treatment plant. Neverthe- less, the legacy of the combined-sewer-system decision continues to affect us very much today: during a rainstorm the untreated domestic wastewater, together with the stormwater, bypasses the treatment plant and goes into the river, frequently causing the county health department to issue warning of fecal contamination. CLEARING THE AIR Pittsburgh has a tremendous natural resource, and that resource is bitumi- nous coal. Some people say that more money has been made out of the Pitts- burgh coal seam than any other mineral deposit in the history of the world. For more than 150 years, it provided an inexpensive fuel that was heavily used locally by industry, homes, railroads, and riverboats. But it is also a very dirty fuel, and its consumption resulted in the air-quality problems of smoke. The issue of burning coal and producing smoke has long been a complex matter here because, for many people, smoke meant progress. When were the steel mills not smoking? They were not smoking during economic depressions. Similarly, to the smoke-spewing transporter of choice in the 1940s, "The Penn- sylvania Railroad looks ahead" was a slogan linked to coal.
16 ENSURING ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH IN POSTINDUSTRIAL CITIES FIGURE 3-1 As late as the 1940s, city lights had to be turned on in the daytime because of darkness caused by pollution. At the time, people recognized the quality of life and "nuisance" issues; however, today we have a better understanding of the relationship between air pollution and human health. SOURCE: From the pictorial archives of The Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. Reprinted with permission. Of course, the smoke had many devastating effects on the city and the way people lived. Some of the most famous were the conditions downtown at midday when street lights had to be turned on (Figure 3-1~. The vegetation around the city was also affected; in contrast to the very green city of today, before smoke- control many of the hills were completely denuded by the fumes (Figure 3-2~. We had acid rain before they even invented the term. Not until recently was the relationship between smoke and air pollution and human health directly addressed. Most smoke-related questions revolved around the issue of "nuisance." It made homes dirtier, it increased the price of cleaning, and department stores couldn't keep goods clean. The city had to turn the street lights on, and so on. Some even insisted that smoke was beneficial to people's health. In 1866, travel writer James Parton said: "The Pittsburgher insists that the smoke of bitu- minous coal kills malaria and saves the eyesight. The smoke, so far from being an evil, is a blessing, and it destroys every property of the atmosphere that is hostile to life." Fortunately, not everyone believed that. Again, a women's group,
THE CHANGING FACE OF PITTSBURGH: A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE 17 FIGURE 3-2 This picture circa 1910 on the outskirts of Pittsburgh illustrates the effect that air pollution had on the growth of vegetation. At this time, it was common to have trees denuded by the fumes. SOURCE: Byington, 1910. the Ladies Health Protective Association, was organized in 1889 to try to do something about the smoke problem, but they were far less successful than with water filtration. For one thing, some major investigations came up empty with regard to the impact of smoke on health. A report of the Mellon Institute a six-volume study done between 1910 and 1914 focused on the economic costs of smoke; researchers had to downplay its health costs because they could not determine any of air pollution's relationships to various diseases. They concluded that although Pittsburghers had mottled lungs, this was not dangerous to their health because of what they called "pulmonary anthacosis," or formation of lesions that allegedly warded off bacteria and promoted healing in the case of tuberculosis. After years of ineffective attempts at smoke control, Pittsburgh finally took action to reduce its smoke burden (see Figure 3-3~. Pittsburgh, in fact, followed the lead of St. Louis, which in 1940 passed a very strong act to regulate fuel type and fuel-burning technology. Pittsburgh did much the same in 1941. The war interfered with the implementation of this law, but there was a strong push in the postwar period led by the Allegheny Committee on Community Development, to pick up the pace with the media and women's clubs driving home the lesson of the ill effects of smoke. The law was implemented, the air got cleaner, buildings were cleaned up, the hills became greener, and many people were very satisfied with themselves.
18 ENSURING ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH IN POSTINDUSTRIAL CITIES FIGURE 3-3 Post-World War II, there was a strong public health campaign in Pittsburgh to link health to air pollution, 1941. SOURCE: The Historical Society of Western Penn- sylvania. Reprinted with permission. Legislation appeared to have done the trick. But the fact is, the legislation alone didn't do it. What really dealt effectively with the city's smoke problem was an unexpected development the German submarine fleet! During World War II, U-boats were sinking oil tankers off the Gulf coast just about as quickly as they could leave their ports, and the United States was faced with the problem of getting oil up to northern industrial areas like Pittsburgh. So it built two large pipelines: Big Inch and Little Inch. At the end of the war, these pipelines were bought by private interests and converted for transporting natural gas, which had heretofore been flared off uselessly in the oil fields of Texas and Oklahoma. At the same time as the smoke-control act was being implemented, clean and inex- pensive natural gas was flowing into the Pittsburgh area, as well as into other cities. And it provoked a rapid changeover: between 1945 and 1950, more than half of Pittsburgh's households switched from coal to natural gas. The clean-air legislation wasn't irrelevant, however, and the strong smoke-control law helped hasten the changeover. Another major technological change that occurred around this time was the shift from coal-burning locomotives to diesel-electric. In 1950, the United States had 35,000 coal-burning locomotives; by 1954, there were 350. This was one of
THE CHANGING FACE OF PITTSBURGH: A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE 19 the most rapid technological transformations in United States history, and of course it too made a big difference in Pittsburgh and around the nation in regard to air quality. BEYOND CELEBRATION It's clear that the definition of progress held by many people in the nine- teenth century and early twentieth century did not include environmental values, and certainly the relationship between health and environment was not acknowl- edged or much understood. But substantial changes have been made since then. Citizens groups have continually been important in that regard, certainly in Pittsburgh. Much of the pressure on local industry for air-pollution reduction- for instance, in pushing for enforcement of the laws was applied by a group called GASP (Group Against Smog and Pollution), again with women dominating. All in all, Pittsburgh once a city of great environmental degradation has made dramatic advances in addressing its inherited problems. Nevertheless, we still have a long way to go, which requires that we look beyond all the accomplishments of the past to focus on problems of the present and the future. As the environmental historian Samuel P. Hays has said, we must go "beyond celebration."