WEBSTER – A sharp-shinned hawk crosses overhead as a Pennsylvania Game Commission officer inspects parts of nearly 500 acres of Rostraver Township forest that have been added to the state’s public hunting land program in Westmoreland County.
Ahead, nearly a dozen turkeys scramble into grasslands dotting property that was once an environmental disaster zone, wilted away by decades up through the late 1950s of pollution from steel and zinc mills in neighboring Donora in Washington County.
“As far as I can tell it’s a pretty healthy forest,” said Matthew Lucas, a commission wildlife conservation officer, discussing the property’s amazing recovery during an Oct. 10 site inspection.
“The wildlife is pretty resilient,” he said while driving along a crude road in an area that has essentially healed itself over the more than five decades that have passed since the steel era ended in Donora.
The borough is infamous in environmental history as having been home to mills that contributed to the nation’s deadliest air pollution disaster, a event that led to the first federal clean air legislation. At least 20 people died in the deep Monongahela River valley over a Halloween weekend in 1948 when dense fog trapped pollution there until U.S. Steel shut down its zinc smelters and light rain washed away the toxic fumes.
A group known as the Donora Smog Commemorative Committee will mark the disaster’s 65th anniversary with a series of events in late October and early November, beginning with an Oct. 30 town hall environmental conference in the borough building featuring a panel of history and environmental experts.
The devastation to life and property in the first six decades of the 1900s became accepted consequences of prosperity in Donora, said Charles Stacey, a retired Ringgold School District superintendent.
“I think we were unaware of the dangers of air pollution,” said Stacey, of Donora.
No one wanted to complain too loudly then because thousands of mill jobs were at stake.
“That’s just the way things were,” he said. “I remember I could sit here at my home on McKean Avenue and see nothing but barren land. It was bad. I tell people I didn’t see grass until I was 30 years old.”
Today, what Stacey sees across the Monongahela River is a forest as thick as a jungle above the village of Webster.
Thousands of acres of those hills, many of which became abandoned farms or victims of unregulated strip mining, have since been returned to the tax rolls and portions of them are on the market to be sold, said Tamira M. Spedaliere, Rostraver’s township planner.
While Rostraver is among few Mon Valley municipalities experiencing growth, the hills above Webster pose many redevelopment challenges.
Spedaliere said the land has many steep slopes to the river, no public sewers or water lines and an electric transmission line running across its entire length.
And, the property is experiencing modern environmental problems, Lucas said.
He said trespassers come on the land to build bonfires for parties, and leave behind trash, including empty beer bottles and cans.
The grounds around the power line, as well as other areas of the forest, have been severely eroded by others who illegally ride four-wheel-drive pickup trucks, all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes there, Lucas said.
Many of them were scared off after Lucas began issuing warning tickets to people he has caught trespassing on the land with vehicles.
“The word is out now through the inner circle,” he said.
He said placing the forest 1 1/2 years ago into the public hunting program has “had a real positive response” because the hunters began to police the land and call the Game Commission when they see problems.
Yet, it wouldn’t be unusual if an occasional black bear passed through this area, which didn’t attract birds or bunny rabbits in the 1960s.
“Stuff has grown up to create early habitat for songbirds. There is a healthy population here of coyote,” Lucas said.
“It’s really good for a lot of wildlife.”