Pittsburgh Residents Form the Group Against Smog and Pollution Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A group of Pittsburgh residents decided that the only way to improve the environment of the city and county was by concerted citizen action. They thus formed the Group Against Smog and Pollution to lobby for environmentally conscious policies.

Summary of Event

The Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) was organized in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the fall of 1969. The history of GASP as a citizens’ organization began with state and county public hearings regarding proposed statewide ambient air-quality standards in accordance with the federal Air Quality Act Air Quality Act (1967) of 1967. It became clear to many citizens who testified at the hearings that effective changes in Pittsburgh’s air quality would occur only with an actively involved public. Environmental organizations;Group Against Smog and Pollution Group Against Smog and Pollution Smog Pollution;United States Activism [kw]Pittsburgh Residents Form the Group Against Smog and Pollution (Oct. 20, 1969) [kw]Group Against Smog and Pollution, Pittsburgh Residents Form the (Oct. 20, 1969) [kw]Smog and Pollution, Pittsburgh Residents Form the Group Against (Oct. 20, 1969) [kw]Pollution, Pittsburgh Residents Form the Group Against Smog and (Oct. 20, 1969) Environmental organizations;Group Against Smog and Pollution Group Against Smog and Pollution Smog Pollution;United States Activism [g]North America;Oct. 20, 1969: Pittsburgh Residents Form the Group Against Smog and Pollution[10500] [g]United States;Oct. 20, 1969: Pittsburgh Residents Form the Group Against Smog and Pollution[10500] [c]Organizations and institutions;Oct. 20, 1969: Pittsburgh Residents Form the Group Against Smog and Pollution[10500] [c]Environmental issues;Oct. 20, 1969: Pittsburgh Residents Form the Group Against Smog and Pollution[10500] Madoff, Michelle Kitzes, Arnold Pelkofer, Patricia Zadan, Walter Kitzes, Esther Corn, Morton Goldburg, Walter Broughton, Robert Widom, Jeanette

Following the hearings, about fifty people met in a private home on October 20, 1969, to discuss their concerns and discouragement regarding the progress of setting meaningful air-quality standards for the Pittsburgh region. With Michelle Madoff elected as president, forty-three members of the group formed GASP, an organization that would attempt to work within the established public and legal processes, provide research reports, present testimony, and serve to educate both the general public and officials. By February, 1970, GASP was incorporated as a Pennsylvania nonprofit corporation and quickly grew to a membership of several thousand persons.

Historically, as far back as the mid-1800’s, Pittsburgh was known as the “smoky city.” Some efforts were initiated locally to control the smoke considered to be a nuisance associated with industry. Knowledge of the health effects of air particulates and gaseous contaminants was poor, and the technologies for measuring air quality at the time were crude. Pressure by business, medical, and women’s groups led to a city smoke ordinance passed in 1941. During World War II, all action was suspended. In the postwar years, however, key officials and business leaders realized that Pittsburgh’s redevelopment depended upon cleaning up the air in the city. Nevertheless, enforcement of ordinances bringing major polluters into compliance was weak and ineffective.

On October 26, 1948, a few miles southwest of Pittsburgh, along the Monongahela River at Donora, Pennsylvania, a poisonous cloud of gases produced by local industries lay immobile over the village and throughout the valley. Nearly six thousand people were hospitalized and of these, at least twenty died as a result of the toxic fumes resting in the river valley.

The historic episode in Donora Temperature inversions;Donora, Pennsylvania played a significant part in prompting the county, state, and federal governments to accept their roles in monitoring air quality. The Pennsylvania legislature soon passed laws permitting Allegheny County to enact smoke-control ordinances. Public and business interest groups worked to ensure that railroads, a prominent Pittsburgh industry, would not be exempt from these ordinances. It was not until 1960 that state air-pollution legislation was enacted. Following the Donora episode, no organized citizens’ groups pressured for air-pollution control and enforcement, although the traditional conservation groups were in favor of such laws.

In the early and mid-1960’s, air pollution in the United States was acknowledged to be a serious national problem requiring federal legislation. The Clean Air Act was passed in 1963; the legislation was essentially supportive of programs Allegheny County already had. The 1967 Air Quality Act reinforced the requirement that state and local governments take responsibility for the air-quality standards in their jurisdictions. Public hearings were held in an attempt to expedite grassroots participation.

Prior to the public hearings, careful and critical analysis of the proposed standards had been prepared by engineers, scientists, physicians, and citizens from various sectors of the region along with the cooperation of some federal officials. Reports were presented in a series of meetings and seminars at Pittsburgh universities and elsewhere in the city.

On September 9, 1969, the Pennsylvania State Air Pollution Commission Pennsylvania State Air Pollution Commission , in accordance with federal law, held public hearings in Pittsburgh on the proposed statewide air-quality standards. Though the officials were vaguely aware that the general public supported much stronger standards than were being proposed, they were completely unprepared for the huge crowd of more than one thousand people including nearly fifty witnesses prepared to testify and circulate written reports from garden clubs, health organizations, conservation groups, women’s organizations, and from scientific and medical experts.

Wood chip burners obscured by smog.

(National Archives)

On September 29, 1969, the Allegheny County Air Pollution Advisory Committee Allegheny County Air Pollution Advisory Committee Air Pollution Advisory Committee, Allegheny County held its countywide public hearings. Hundreds of residents turned out for the meetings and criticized the proposed rules and regulations that the advisory committee had worked on for nearly two years.

After the September hearings, residents met to assess what had taken place. GASP was created as a consequence of these hearings and was launched under the leadership and energy of Michelle Madoff with strong support from those who testified. Hundreds of talented people in Pittsburgh became involved and volunteered their time, resources, and services. The organization’s membership quickly grew to five thousand.

The new organization immediately became involved in the Allegheny County Variance Appeals Board. Through the efforts of GASP, well-qualified people were appointed to the variance board. Eventually, GASP was recognized as a party in the proceedings, representing the public interest. The county’s 265 industrial plants, which were out of compliance with the county air-pollution law, were seeking exemption from the air-pollution regulations. Among these companies was United States Steel Corporation United States Steel Corporation (U.S. Steel), which had as part of its industrial complex the largest coke-producing works in the world, the Clariton Coke Works Clariton Coke Works .

Although there were many sources of air pollution in the valley, the coke industry was identified as the most polluting; the Clariton Coke Works alone contained twenty batteries of coke ovens totaling 1,375 individual ovens. The plant processed 33,000 tons of coal per day to make 21,500 tons of coke, essential to the steel-making industry. To produce coke, coal is cooked at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for about eighteen hours and then quenched with water. Considerable pollution can be created by gases leaking from the oven doors during cooking and at coke removal. The method of U.S. Steel used at the time for quenching the hot coke also produced toxic emissions.

About 3.5 million gallons of water per day were required for quenching the glowing coke. The Clariton Coke Works used a combination of river water and what was called “process water,” which was water that was derived from the coke-making process. Gases escaping from the cooking ovens were passed through a water spray to remove some of the matter volatilized from the coal. The resulting process water contained toxins such as phenols, benzene, cyanide, hydrogen sulfide, and chlorides. Water-pollution laws prohibited discharging the water into the Monongahela River, so U.S. Steel recycled it for use to quench the hot coke. As a result of the heat, tons of toxic substances were volatilized and put into the air at the plant fifteen miles south of Pittsburgh.

U.S. Steel representatives said that the company was unable to comply fully with the regulations and therefore sought exemption from the Board of Pollution Appeals and Variance Review. GASP volunteers presented testimony at and attended more than 250 hearings of the variance board between 1970 and 1975. U.S. Steel discontinued the use of contaminated water to quench coke; nevertheless, problems of air pollution in the valley would persist.

During this time, GASP had lively media coverage on radio and television, had experts speak before groups, produced two films, and published the GASP Hotline Newsletter. GASP cartoonists created Dirty Gertie, the Poor Polluted Birdie, for publicity, bumper stickers, and pins, public-service announcements, Dirty Gertie cookies, and the annual Dirty Gertie Award Certificates presented to polluting industries. GASP conducted an extensive education program through its speakers’ bureau, seminars, and guided tours of “pollution land” in the Pittsburgh area. Polluters who did outstanding jobs in cleanup were honored with the “GASP Good Neighbor Award.” A Presbyterian church provided the organization with free office space.

Early in the 1970’s, GASP began to address environmental issues other than air pollution. The GASP Water Committee was active in meetings and hearings on water-pollution legislation and programs for issuing permits to industrial water polluters. Innovative workshops and educational experiences were organized, such as a barge trip on the Monongahela River so area residents could see pollution problems and sources first hand.

In response to public inquiries, an action and education plan on asbestos was developed. When EPA reports at the time of the Love Canal investigations revealed that 21 of 123 active toxic-waste disposal areas in Pennsylvania were located in Allegheny County, GASP became immediately involved in the problems of toxic waste. GASP continues to deal with hazardous emissions from coke-producing plants, from industry-pollution sources located on Neville Island in the Ohio River, from local municipalities still in nonattainment with regard to inhalable particulates (PM-10), and from the incineration of waste.


The impact of GASP in the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County can be viewed from two perspectives. First, GASP played a key role in the formulation of public policy regarding the environment, air pollution specifically, and in the implementation and assurance of compliance with the ordinances and regulations. Second, GASP became recognized as an effective, dynamic, and informed citizens’ organization as was demonstrated in a Pittsburgh-area survey and by national media recognition.

GASP began at a time when the national public awareness of environmental problems was heightened and the citizenry pressed for government action. Environmental regulations were formulated by city, county, state, and federal agencies. It was not always clear where the boundaries of intergovernmental jurisdiction lay or whether the new air-quality standards were realistically achievable with the available technology and economic resources. Industry was put in an adversarial position and, instead of working for as clean an environment as possible, appeared to be interested only in compliance with regulations. If corporations were unwilling to comply with the stricter standards, or unable to do so, they sought variances, or as individual corporations and through their associations, initiated court proceedings and appeals delaying compliance action for years.

The economic, political, and social milieu of the time favored the involvement of many academics and experts in environmental issues who could lend their specialized scholarship, research, and testimony in working with citizens’ groups and the general public addressing environmental and health problems. Where previously, industry participated on boards and commissions offering to police itself and come into compliance with environmental regulations, heads of corporations were challenged regarding the sincerity of their specific goals and the deadlines for compliance. GASP provided, by its talented and professional membership, experts who had access to libraries and research reports, who could provide analysis and research studies locally, who could give legal advice, and who could provide testimony that was not available even on the public boards and commissions regarding environmental quality.

GASP attracted attention nationally and was recognized as an example of effective citizen action in U.S. government reports for the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972 and in the 1976 United Nations Conference on Human Settlements in Vancouver, Canada. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) credited GASP for the fact that Allegheny County has one of the most stringent air-pollution codes in the nation and has one of the most effective control agencies, and GASP continues successfully to confront polluters, sometimes in tandem with EPA legal action. Environmental organizations;Group Against Smog and Pollution Group Against Smog and Pollution Smog Pollution;United States Activism

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Michael H. The Toxic Cloud: The Poisoning of America’s Air. New York: Harper & Row, 1987. A general discussion of U.S. air-pollution problems. Brown faults the Environmental Protection Agency for its failure to act to protect America’s air quality.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bryner, Gary C. Blue Skies, Green Politics: The Clean Air Act of 1990. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1993. The author focuses on policy making, using the Clean Air Act as a case study. The text covers the main issues from the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970 to the various amendments through 1990. Good glossary and chapter notes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dewey, Scott Hamilton. Don’t Breathe the Air: Air Pollution and U.S. Environmental Politics, 1945-1970. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2000. Addresses U.S. political battles against air pollution both nationally and in specific locales. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">French, Hilary F. Clearing the Air: A Global Agenda. Washington, D.C.: Worldwatch Institute, 1990. Gives a global perspective on air-pollution problems, which afflict communities around the world in spite of legislation and new technology. An excellent review of the global air-quality situation in the early 1990’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, Charles O. Clean Air: The Policies and Politics of Pollution Control. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1975. The author presents an analysis of the air-pollution problem in Pittsburgh as a case study of the public policy-making process. Well researched and written in an exceptionally readable style for both the specialist and the layperson interested in environmental protection and a realistic agenda or strategy for change. The appendix provides a framework for analyzing public processes and a layperson’s introduction to air pollution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vig, Norman J., and Michael E. Kraft, eds. Environmental Policy in the 1990’s: Reform or Reaction? 3d ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1997. The author reviews the important developments of environmental policy since 1970 and analyzes some of the central issues ahead. The book gives a global perspective on the difficulty of policy making with regard to a number of environmental problems.

World Conservation Union Is Founded

Nature Conservancy Is Founded

Brower Becomes Executive Director of the Sierra Club

Rockefeller Founds the Population Council

Keep America Beautiful Is Founded

World Wildlife Fund Is Established

Environmental Defense Fund Is Founded

Brower Forms Friends of the Earth

Natural Resources Defense Council Is Founded

Categories: History