Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, there are certain things we have in common as human beings. One is the air we breathe. Another is the water we drink.This thought popped into my mind when I read about the rescinding of the regulation prohibiting coal companies from dumping coal waste into streams. And that thought took me back to Johnstown, Pa. in the Fall of 1967.

In a “footnote in history” moment, I had applied for and gotten a job in Johnstown from a notice on an actual bulletin board in an actual job placement office after an actual interview. I would become the youngest executive director in the history of a very powerful civic organization, “The Greater Johnstown Committee.” Little did I know how powerful: it was the most powerful organization in town. To be on the board one had to be the president of a local company or the highest ranking official of a locally based national company. My bosses included the regional vice presidents of Bethlehem Steel, US Steel, Pennsylvania Electric, the Water Authority andthe president of the The Johnstown Savings Bank (in those days Savings Banks were society’s mortgage lenders), and so on down the line.

How powerful? I was at lunch with the bank’s president at “the club” when a very tipsy man approached and said to the president, whose bank had just foreclosed on his home, “I’d like to piss on your grave!” The president, totally unruffled, turned his head, looked over his shoulder without even turning around and said, “I hope you don’t mind standing in line.” He then sat down, ordered lunch, and opened up our conversation like nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

How powerful? Permit me another story. My arrival late  one Fall day was on a day of resplendent Western, Pa. weather. The air was crisp and dry, the temperature was cool, a breeze tickled the leaves gently inducing them to show their spectacular Fall colors. Then I had a “what’s wrong with this picture?” moment. A yellow dust covered everything, and I do mean everything–anything that was stationary including the sidewalks and all the parked cars. “Pollen?” I thought. Probably not. That would be Spring. Lost in the moment of getting settled for a new job, my first, I lost the moment of wondering what the dust was. It wasn’t until a few days later I got my answer. It was sulfur dioxide, dust from the stacks of the mills, which were still running 24-7.

Because not much new happened in those days in Western, Pa. my coming to town from out of town was big news and within days I received an invitation to speak to the Rotary Club. It was the most powerful of the civic clubs in town to which belonged almost all of my board members. Foolish 27 year old that I was, I gave to a stunningly hushed room an oration on my entry to town and my shock at finding out that everyone was breathing the residue of a steel making process that was sitting right here in town. The room was so hushed because everyone was in shock. No one ever said anything like that in Johnstown, Pa., not out loud anyway. They were also contemplating starting a pool on how long I would last in my job…

Timed almost to the second as I walked into my office from the speech, my secretary said, “‘phone’s for you.” It was the VP of Bethlehem Steel who invited me to his office for a chat. “Just heard your speech. I’d like to see you.”

“But of course!” I replied, so much anticipation was coursing through me (“Gee, I’m going to meet the VP of Bethlehem Steel!”), I was like an eager puppy. “When should I come by?”

“Right now.” was the response followed by a click and a dial tone. Anticipation turned to anxiety.

As I drove into the lot the sign said, “All visitors or employees not driving an American made car are invited to park somewhere else.” They weren’t joking. I was driving a VW. I had to find where “somewhere else” was.

I was ushered into an office the likes of which I’d never seen. “Worthy of a king,” comes to mind. I then received the first seated thrashing I’d ever gotten. In short order came machine gun like questions that were answered as rapidly as they came. Did I know what steel and coal added to the area economy? Did I know how many people who lived in the area worked in the mills and the mines? etc etc etc The final  question was this: “Do you know what percentage of the budget of the Greater Johnstown Committee is paid by the Steel, Coal, and Electric industry?” Naive I was. Stupid I wasn’t. I got the message.

I lasted longer than most would have guessed because I was a quick study. I left because a wise family physician and mentor said to me, “People who stay here too long never leave. Get out as fast as you can!” I did. Two and a half years later I was in Colorado, but before I left here is some of what I learned and saw and the indelible conclusion it left.

  • Mountains that were topless, some that in fact were not only not peaked, but were concave. That’s call strip mining.
  • People who looked decades older than they were, retired to their porches because they were too sick to work from working at what made them sick.
  • Piles of black “stuff” called slag, some the size of garbage dumps, the excess of mining, that leeched chemicals into the soil destroying everything in sight and even more that wasn’t in sight.
  • The walking dead in stores and on the streets hacking and coughing with varying degrees of emphysema either from the mines or just from years of breathing in that deceptively pretty yellow carpet about which I began this yarn.
  •  X-rays of peoples’ lungs who had “black lung disease.”
  • The vituperation heaped upon those who dared to challenge “the order of things.”
  • And most shocking and least describable, the effluent, the vomit, that came rushing out of pipes into once pristine clear mountain streams.

The conclusion? I could sum it up by paraphrasing our shadow president, Steve Bannon, and his advice to the press by saying to those who “Hoorayed!” at the deregulation mentioned above, “Shut Up!”

I won’t.

I will say this. Unless you’ve seen what it can do, there is a lot to be learned about industry left unbridled that can’t be learned without seeing its destructive impact, or at least looking at pictures while doing research on it. The irony is this. An unbridled horse, whcih looks so gorgeous at first blush, not only will do injury to things around itself, it is so unpredictable that that if not reigned in it will injure itself. The trick is to work the bit and the bridle so the best of the horse is brought out with the least risk to itself and those around it.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere.



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One thought on “THE AIR WE BREATHE

  1. Thanks Bill for reminding us what’s at stake in this moment of our history. Like strip-mining, it’s very scary to contemplate that some of Trump’s actions won’t be possible to undo


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