Smog City

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By Ken Zurski

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The sun never showed up as usual in St Louis, Missouri on November 28 1939, a Tuesday.

The sky went black and stayed that way. In fact, for the next several days, the Gateway City remained mostly in the dark. A thick cloud of smog hovering over the streets putting filthy dust on surfaces and causing many to seek shelter indoors and away from the choking, blinding smoke.

But it’s not as if everyone wasn’t warned.

The burning of bituminous high-sulfur or “soft” coal to heat and power homes was at an all-time high. Winter was just creeping in and stoves were firing. The city could sense a growing problem, but had little recourse to stop it.

Long before, in 1893, a city ordinance was passed forbidding the emission of the “thick grey smoke” within the corporate limits.  But enforcement was lax.  And for many, what was the alternative? The city’s population grew and the coal debate just got worse.

In 1937, with coal use at dangerous levels, the St. Louis Dispatch announced a “citizen smoke committee” designed to warn others of the continued use of coal and come up with ways to make the air cleaner. One suggestion was “washing” the coal to reduce sulfur. Also, size was important. Smaller pieces of coal in the stove would restrict the fire many were told.  Few followed the advice, so a smoke ordnance was passed that year which helped reduce emissions form factory smokestacks by nearly two-thirds.  But that wasn’t enough. And it did nothing to curb use of coal in homes and small businesses.

Manufacturers of the precious commodity, mined mostly in Illinois, balked at the restrictions. After all, business was good and coal was in high demand. The cleaner anthracite coal was being mined and used in other states, but the Illinois mining industry had an abundance of bituminous coal to extract along the Mississippi River. Raymond Tucker, an assistant to the mayor, and the appointed Commissioner of Smoke Regulation, was skeptical, but optimistic. “Only time and experience,” he said, “will point the way toward an ultimate solution.”

Then the sky fell.

But it wasn’t entirely the city’s fault. A temperature inversion occurred, trapping the coal smoke close to the ground. Normally the air near the surface is warmer than the air above, but an inversion switches that polarity and stops atmospheric conversion. The air becomes still and heavy and a collection of dust and pollutants is suspended. Thick billowing smoke had been in the skies like normal, but it would typically rise.  On “Black Tuesday,” as it was later dubbed, the smoke stayed and settled.

At noon that day, it still  looked like midnight. Visibility was enhanced 4only by the glare of streetlights, the stream of headlights from an automobile, or the soft glow of a lit cigarette. Somewhere in the shroud of smoke a faint poke of sunlight could be seen, then shut off again. Many citizens went out as usual that day, but quickly realized nothing would come easy. “Let me off at Thirteenth Street and Washington,” a streetcar rider told an operator, then added: “If you can find it.”

That Tuesday was the worst day. “The winds were negligible,” the papers reported, “hardly enough to stir the choking, grey, atmosphere.”  For the next week or so (some say it was for a full month) the smoke hung low, but gradually dissipated.

When the skies finally cleared, the same questions remained: How do we get the public to burn cleaner coal? The blackout was a wake up call.  Most residents, for the first time, were ready to comply.  The first anti-smoke law was passed, which helped,  but it was America’s induction into World War II that greatly benefited the cause.

Since coal was in high demand during the war, the Illinois coal miners had other more important orders to fulfill and therefore not so reliant on public consumption. Without a pushback, Commissioner Tucker went shopping and found there were good mines in neighboring states, like Arkansas, selling the cleaner coal.

But that would take time. In the interim, an estimated 1-million people had to change their habits. After “Black Tuesday” they were informed how to slowly burn the “soft” coal” and reduce emissions.   The “old way vs. the new way,” newspaper ads proclaimed, giving step-by-step instructions for using the cleaner “piling” method of burning coal and the benefits of adding a mechanical stoker.

It worked.

The following year around the first anniversary of the blackout, on mornings when weather conditions were about the same and an inversion was possible, St. Lousians nervously waited for the smoke to descend again. They hoped their efforts were not in vain.

The sun came out as usual each day.

But this time it stayed.

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