|Fontana Kaiser Steel strike
1972 and smog
Lincoln Cushing, Heritage writer
[Originally published in Kaiser Permanente's "HIstory of Total Health" November 2013; republished 4/18/2022]
Can heavy industry be a good neighbor? That was one of the challenges facing the Kaiser Steel plant in Fontana, California, in 1972.
Steel for shipbuilding and other industries was in heavy demand during World War II, and no integrated mills (those capable of all phases of steel production, from making iron through rolling shapes) existed on the West Coast.
Henry J. Kaiser was a man of action, so he built a state-of-the-art plant in then-rural Fontana, 55 miles inland from Los Angeles. It fired up its first blast furnace, “Bess No. 1” (named after Kaiser’s wife), on December 30, 1942, and boasted numerous technologies to reduce air and water pollution.
Additional steps were taken over the years to be a model facility, but the plant struggled to adopt increasingly stringent environmental safeguards as the surrounding community developed.
The first national “Earth Day” in 1970 was an indicator of increased national environmental consciousness, and community relations with the steel mill grew tense.
In February 1972 the United Steelworkers of America Local No. 2869 started a 43-day strike that shut down the sprawling facility. Implementing Henry J. Kaiser’s famous proclamation that “Problems are only opportunities in work clothes,” management saw the situation as a way to help dispel one of their most persistent criticisms – Kaiser Steel’s perceived role as the primary source of local air pollution. They embarked on a project to document Fontana’s skies when the “variable” of an operating steel mill was absent.
Here is the explanatory text from the 32-page booklet, Aerial Photographs During the Strike, published by Kaiser Steel immediately following the strike:
California author Mike Davis, in his critical book City of Quartz, noted Kaiser Steel’s strike-based environmental documentation in the chapter “Fontana: Junkyard of Dreams” and made these observations:
Many ex-steelworkers still vehemently believe that the Kaiser pollution scare was purposely manufactured by developers who regarded the plant—smog-spewing or not—as a huge negative externality to residential construction in the Cucamonga-Fontana area.
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