Seventy-five years ago St. Louis mounted a great effort to rid itself of air pollution that had plagued the city, and many others throughout North America and Europe, for decades. Today, after a respite, the story of that struggle continues.
By Bob Wyss
The frost was coming.
And with the cold St. Louis knew was that it was about to be tested.
After months of heated political battles, appeals to the citizenry, and efforts to protect the poor, St. Louis was about to discover if all of the work in the last nine months would protect itself from the clouds and pollution of previous winters.
James L. Ford, the banker who had headed much of the effort to crack down on the pollution, believed that the city was ready.
“There has never been in any city of our country such an aroused and militant mass movement on any civic question as there today exists in St. Louis,” he wrote in an article published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The citizens, he said, were demanding a healthier atmosphere.
Who can deny them that right and who can prevent their accomplishments?” he asked. “Our aim is toward the sun.”
For decades St. Louis and other industrial cities in the world had burned coal for heat and energy and had suffered with the result – bilious black clouds that hung in the air and were so thick that they blotted out the sun for hours or days in the winter.
The city in April, over the raucous objections of those who claimed the costs would be to high, had ordered its citizens to either buy cleaner fuel or install more fuel efficient heaters and boilers. Throughout the summer the city had battled a boycott campaign staged by angry coal dealers and mounted a massive public relations campaign in behalf of the changes that were now about to begin.
Ford believed that even before the first chill that the city had made significant progress.
The railroads, which burned up to a half million tons of coal as they passed through St. Louis, had agreed to buy diesel engines and to end their resistance.
The city schools also agreed to comply, even though the cost of the cleaner fuel was going to be an additional $750,000, which in 2015 would have equaled $12.7 million.
The boycott from Illinois coal dealers and mine operators was continuing, but was already showing signs of dissipating.
Nationally, federal officials had questioned whether St. Louis had the right to restrict coal sales and the city at times had struggled to explain its reasoning.
But the public relations campaign, led by city officials and backed by the powerful St. Louis Post-Dispatch and its publisher, Joseph Pulitzer II, had been a powerful force.
Both the newspaper and its sister radio station had produced daily stories about the campaign. Some Commissioner Raymond Tucker had become a familiar voice on the radio station.
On Sept. 18 Post-Dispatch editors met with Ford, Tucker and other city officials to review what was ahead. They discussed possible stories for the fall both about the progress of what was called “the anti-smoke campaign” and the obstacles that still needed to be overcome.
Four days later the newspaper published an appeal by Ford urging everyone in St. Louis to join the fight. That could even mean reporting on neighbors who clearly were burning dirty coal.
Ford acknowledged that most citizens were not used “to take upon themselves the duty of policeman, to insure about law infractions.” But he said it was necessary.
“Once the public offender understands that he not only has to face those actually in charge of enforcement but faces also the condemnation of his neighbors and all good citizens, he will be far more likely to conform,” said Ford.
A few days later Tucker added his warning that the law would be strictly enforced. He said St. Louis had been rife with rumors that city officials would go easy on offenders.
“These rumors are not based upon fact and they are without foundation,” he said.
Tucker had been working many of the city’s largest fuel users but he admitted that his greatest concern was with the tens of thousands of small residences across the city.
For too long, he said, some who could afford to buy cleaner burning coal had balked at the higher price. That had to change. Plus, landlords too often had refused to pay more because they claimed they could not pass the added price on to their tenants.
The costs in the deterioration of the city, in increased respiratory and health ailments, was far greater. “These people have paid a price for smoky fuel relatively greater than any and far more than they will pay for smokeless fuel,” said Tucker.
Would there still be smoky days this coming winter?
Undoubtedly, said both Ford and Tucker.
Winds coming from nearby East St. Louis could blow coal smoke into the city. While enforcement within St. Louis would be strict, Tucker, Ford were purposely being conservative, believing it might take several years for the city to embrace this new system enough so that the pollution would abate.
On Sept. 26 the Post-Dispatch editorially endorsed the continuing effort and said the price ahead was reasonable. “Is it not worth a few extra dollars to enjoy the better health and the greater efficiency that come with smoke elimination?” it asked. “Is it not worth something to give the community a new lease on life?”
St. Louis would soon find out.