The story so far: On November 28, 1939, 75 years ago, a thick, black smoke covered St. Louis, turning day into night, snarling traffic and angering and shocking residents. A Smoke Elimination Committee was created and it met through January and into February sorting out its limited options for finagling cleaning the city’s air. Its report in late February proposed that all residents and businesses buy more expensive fuel that caused less pollution. A public hearing on March 26 drew 400 people with broad support except from the coal industry. The Board of Alderman adopted an ordinance which Mayor Bernard Dickmann threatened to veto.
By Bob Wyss
On this date April 8, which was a Monday 75 years ago, Philip Watson of the Terminal Railroad Association sent special delivery letters to each aldermen warning of the consequences if a controversial amendment were removed from the ordinance.
If the railroads did not have relief from new rules requiring they burn cleaner coal, the Terminal Association would challenge the law in court. It had no effect.
James L. Ford, the chairman of the city Smoke Elimination Committee, explained that he had called his full committee together after the ordinance had been amended to assist the railroads. It was so far-reaching, he said, that the city had no alternative but to oppose it.
“We would rather have no bill, rather an unjust one,” he said.
Mayor Bernard Dickmann met privately with aldermen in his office at 10 a.m. Afterwards, those who had voted for the ordinance said they had made a mistake. At noon they quickly voted to rescind the terminal amendment and passed the revised ordinance.
Dickmann was so pleased that he invited all 28 members of the board, other city officials, and even several newspaper reporters to have lunch with him at the Hotel Jefferson. It quickly turned into an impromptu victory celebration. The mayor, according to the reporters, could not contain his glee.
“This is the greatest thing we’ve ever done,” he declared. He said that ridding the city of coal smoke would not only help restore St. Louis but it would lure people back who had fled to the suburbs.
The newspapers were delighted. “Smashed Into Smithereens,” proclaimed the lead editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, delighted by the way the pesky railroad ordinance had been derailed. “Mayor Dickmann Saves the Day,” said the St. Lous Star-Times editorially.
And yet, in some respects, so much more needed to happen.
If the ordinance was contested by the railroads, there would be consequences. The Post-Dispatch urged the city to review its contract with the railroads for the tolls they paid to travel over municipally-owned bridges. Six weeks later, Editorial Page Editor Ralph Coghlan was still so angry that he urged the city to force the Terminal Association to move its tracks near the river.
Ford, the smoke chairman, said that if the Terminal Association had been less obstinate it would have discovered that the railroads were eligible for low-interest loans from the federal government to buy diesel locomotives. Each of those engines, he predicted, would save $10,000 a year.
The vote was clearly a milestone. And yet, it was a reminder that even when one hits such a high mark, so much more needs to happen. St. Louis may have vowed to get rid of its smoke, but delivering was another matter.
The St. Louis story of 75 years clearly resembles what the entire world is going through currently with climate change. and the efforts of the UN IPCC to quell it The first major international conference and attempts to reach a treaty agreement occurred in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan. While the U.S. initially signed on, Congress never approved it and the Bush administration ignored it. That was one milestone missed.
That failure prompted other nations to only ratchet up their greenhouse emissions, temperatures rose, and scientists have warned that we have reached or already exceeded a tipping point for abating the long-term impacts of climate change.
Finally, last December a new milestone was reached in Lima, Peru the United States, China and others agreed to a leveling off of carbon emissions by 2030. Last week, the Obama administration pledged to reduce greenhouse -gas emissions to up to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The European Union and several nations have also filed similar pledges and the issue is head for negotiations before the UN summit in Paris this coming December.
It remains to be seen if Lima, or even Paris, will break new ground. Many are pessimistic that an agreement can be reached. Many are also pessimistic that even this agreement will not be enough to prevent a future environmental calamity.
Yet they felt the same way in St. Louis 75 years ago. Milestones are important. But in St. Louis, the work was just about to begin.