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. This is another in a continuing series about that campaign.
By Bob Wyss
The air does not recognize city limits.
Pollution, and in the case of St. Louis 75 years ago, coal smoke will drift wherever the wind takes it.
In the winter of 1940 some were beginning to suspect that the smoke was traveling from the suburbs to the city.
By early December the number of days of thick smoke in St. Louis as measured by the U.S. Weather Bureau was down by more than 50 percent. There had only been 5 days where visibility was poor and two of those were aided significantly by fog as opposed to smoke. A year before the number had been 11.
But moderate smoke was up markedly, more than 150 percent, from 4 to 15. Much of it seemed to be drifting from neighboring cities, according to some reports. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported seeing smoke drifting from chimneys in East St. Louis across the river into St. Louis.
It’s a common dilemma that has plagued air pollution experts for centuries, and it has only become more complicated as the number of automobile tailpipes increased and smokestacks got bigger and higher.
St. Louis decided to ask its neighbors to join its crusade.
Mayor Bernard Dickmann sent letters to surrounding cities on both sides of the river to cooperate with the St. Louis campaign to reduce smoke. He sent photos of the changes in air quality in the city, copies of the ordinance requiring all residents and businesses to reduce air emissions, and offers of assistance in enforcement.
He told a reporter that what had already occurred in St. Louis could easily be replicated elsewhere.
One of the first to respond was the mayor of Belleville, Ill., where coal miners and operators had been especially upset by the city’s banning of cheap but dirty coal from Southern Illinois mines.
Mayor George Remusnider said the St. Louis anti-smoke campaign had been run by “citizens whose ideas are more or less fantastic.” The ordinance adopted back in April had been a “rush act.”
He said it was hurting low-income families that could not afford the more expensive fuel, it had thrown thousands of coal miners out of work, it had rendered worthless a perfectly sound fuel, and it was hurting trade between St. Louis and Southern Illinois.
But Remusnider’s remarks, which were buried in a story in the Post-Dispatch on Dec. 13, were the exception.
In a front page story the day before mayors from seven municipalities in St. Louis County that ringed St. Louis agreed to work with Dickmann and the city. Five had already adopted ordinances that they said could be enforced and adapted to meet the city’s standards. Two others said they were interested in enacting similar laws.
“We feel as St. Louis does about the desirability of abating smoke and will cooperate in any way we can,” said Mayor B.W. LaTourette of Richmond Heights, Mo.
Clayton, Mo. Mayor Alfred H. Kerth said: “Clayton is appreciative of what St. Louis is doing and St. Louis can depend on us to help eliminate smoke.”
In Brentwood, Mo. Mayor Jerome Howe said that smoke from residential chimneys did not seem to be a problem but that several industries were “creating a lot of smoke.” He said the city had considered adopting an anti-smoke ordinance two years before, had not acted, but would consider taking it up again.
Smoke from railroads seemed to be the major concern in Webster Grove, Mo. The town was also receptive to considering changes.
In addition, University City, Mo. Mayor Matt C. Fogarty said that he was president of an association of municipal leaders within the county, the League of Municipalities. He said he would be willing to bring the issue up before all local executives.
“St. Louis has been doing a good job,” he said, “and we are willing to help in any way we can.”