U.S. Steel sued over former Donora Zinc Works

July 8, 2017
Smoke billows from the zinc works in Donora in this photo included in a video produced at California University of Pennsylvania about the killer 1948 smog. - Courtesy of Donora Historical Society

Sixty years after the Donora Zinc Works closed, some who live nearby are seeking to hold its owners responsible for elevated levels of hazardous heavy metals its operations allegedly produced.

A lawsuit filed Friday in Washington County Court accuses U.S. Steel of failing to notify those in the area around the zinc works of “insidious industrial pollution in their homes, yards and communities” resulting from operations there.

Attorney Michael Jacks of Morgantown, W.Va., the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, wrote his clients “are suffering from a continuing harm in that each and every day, they wake up to live in a polluted property and suffer from additional exposure which cannot be removed unless and until professional remediation is performed.”

The lawsuit includes claims under the state Hazardous Site Cleanup Act and accuses U.S. Steel of negligence and recklessness.

It draws on a study published March 31 that found “elevated levels of hazardous materials including arsenic, lead, cadmium and zinc” in soil seven miles from the zinc works, specifically attributed to the former mill.

U.S. Steel spokeswoman Meghan Cox said the company doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

U.S. Steel opened the smelting and processing plant in 1915 and operated it until it closed in 1957.

The suit alleges the company opted to use horizontal retort furnaces to produce zinc – despite cleaner alternatives available when the works opened – and allegedly never modernized the facility even as the industry evolved, failing to take measures to adequately control pollution.

Along with U.S. Steel, the lawsuit names USX Corp. – the name the company adopted from 1986 to 2001 before reverting to its former name – as a defendant.

The facility came under scrutiny as the probable culprit in the Donora Smog when, during five days in October 1948, a temperature inversion trapped heavily polluted air in the valley, kiling more than 20 people and leaving thousands more ill in Donora and nearby Webster and Sunnyside, across the Monongahela River.

The lethal smog lent momentum to the then-budding environmental movement. The small borough, 20 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, is still known nationally as the site of the man-made disaster.

In subsequent litigation, the company admitted it collected atmospheric sampling data in the decades leading up to the deadly smog incident but has never made that data public.

The new lawsuit alleges the company failed to notify those in the area about contamination from the zinc works.

It seeks designation as a class action and names Louise Kowall and Evelyn Vehouc, both of Donora, and Donna Kopecek of Charleroi, whose child and grandchildren live in a home she owns in Donora, as proposed class representatives.

The lawsuit defines proposed class members as those who own private real estate within a seven-mile radius of the former zinc works, those who have lived in that area at any point in the last 30 years and children who have lived within those bounds.

In court papers, Jacks identified lead, arsenic and cadmium as “carcinogens, neurotoxins and nephrotoxins, causing cancer and kidney failure,” and enumerated risks associated with lead poisoning.

Among the demands in the lawsuit, Jacks asks that a judge hold U.S. Steel responsible for the costs of medical monitoring for diseases associated with the exposure; remediation of the hazardous materials; and punitive and compensatory damages.

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