I have chosen to narrow my sample field to the post World War II time period. I have also excluded nuclear weapons tests and chemical weapons usage (such as agent orange use in Vietnam) as these tests/uses are intentionally meant to cause widespread devastation. This exclusion is not intended to underestimate the severe environmental impacts of these events.
You may disagree with some items on my list, or, perhaps you have suggestions of your own. I welcome your additions and comments.
Top 13 Human-Caused Environmental Horrors:
13) Love Canal, Niagara Falls, New York
In 1953, Hooker Chemical Company (now part of Occidental Petroleum), dumped 21,000 tons of toxic waste comprised of a devil’s cocktail of 80 different toxins into the abandoned Love Canal (named for William Love, a 19th Century developer who began but never finished the canal digging), then sealed it with a clay soil cap. In 1954, under pressure form the Niagara Falls School board, Hooker Chemical sold the land to the city for 1.00. The company’s contract warned of the toxic dump beneath and advised precautions for any development. The company believed at the time it was free from liability, having done all it could.
Over the next few years, a housing development and school were built atop the canal zone. In 1957, city engineers accidentally breached the canal wall while digging a gravel bed for sewage pipes. Heavy rains subsequently flooded the dump and forced large quantities of toxic chemicals to leach out into the soil above, just beneath the Love Canal community. Eventually, what was once a leak became a toxic pool of “blue goo” which spread, sometimes filling backyards and basements of residents’ homes. Over the years, community residents “tolerated” their trees and gardens turning black and dying, rocks and clumps of soil that would just suddenly explode, their children returning from play with caustic burns of their hands and faces, and a ceaseless “choking” quality in the air.
Not until 1976, when several local reporters had the community’s sump pumps tested (finding evidence of benzene and dioxin), and a third investigator (Michael Brown) who conducted a door to door survey, was the truth of Love Canal “leaked” out to the world. The survey revealed a high incidence of birth defects, health problems and, especially, miscarriages. The chemical company owners denied that their toxic waste dump had anything to do with the maladies. Love Canal, once ignored for decades, was now a major media event.
Soon after this, the state launched an official investigation, declaring Love Canal an “unprecedented emergency” (it was the first human-caused, federally declared “disaster area”). In 1979, results of a government examination of residents showed elevated white blood cell counts (a precursor condition for leukemia) and widespread chromosomal damage. Some 800 families were relocated and compensated
The Love Canal disaster gave tremendous impetus for the spread of environmentalism into mainstream society. It was also the impetus for Congress passing the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), or the ‘Superfund’ Act.
12) Tennessee River Valley Coal Ash Spill, Kingston, TN
(December 24, 2008) The nation’s largest spill of coal ash occurred at the Kingston Fossil Plant, a coal-powered generating plant owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Located about 40 miles west of Knoxville on the banks of the Emory River, the spill resulted when a retaining wall made of piled-up earth gave way, spewing a six-foot thick, 300 million gallon wave of ‘fly ash’ sludge into the river and along its banks. The river feeds into the Clinch river and then into the Tennessee river. Millions of cubic yards of the toxic sludge-and-water mixture spread into riverine watersheds and onto adjacent lands. Residents of the communities that surrounded the plant had to be relocated (on Christmas eve, no less). Reports of large fish kills downstream of the spill were reported by recreational fisherman. The immediate to long-term effects of the spill are still being studied.
Analysis of coal ash has revealed high concentrations of heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, selenium, mercury, chromium, nickel and boron. In high concentrations, these metals can cause cancers and various neurological problems. The long-term, health hazards posed by these sites can last more than a century, as heavy metals take long periods of time to leach out into the soil and then sink into water table.
A 2002 EPA-funded study of our nations 400+ other coal ash “waste ponds” was suppressed under pressure from powerful coal lobbying interests (a partial report was later released in 2007; see my 2008 post on this topic). It is estimated that at least half of these dumps are unlined dumps, and so their concentrated brews of heavy metals are slowly seeping into the soil and groundwater aquifers. Additional negative health impacts arise when the sludge dries and the ash becomes airborne and breathable.
11) Toxic Brown Clouds of Central and Eastern Asia
A unique environmental horror is found in the Brown Clouds of China and India. These huge, roaming, toxic miasmas (extending hundreds of meters high and sometimes several miles wide) can last weeks without dissipating. Brown Clouds are largely the result of pervasive, unchecked biomass burning for heat and cooking by hundreds of millions of people in India and China (and other neighboring Southeast Asia nations).
Making their entry onto the world news stage sometime in 2005/06, these Brown Clouds have no precise beginning in time, but are accumulations of soot and other combustion byproducts (mostly hydrocarbons) that have killed an unknown number of infants, asthmatics and elderly in these regions, and, it is claimed, are responsible for the suffocation of whole herds of livestock. More recently, brown clouds have been linked to the melting of the Himalayan and Hindu Kush glaciers (read my 2009 blog post).
10) Baia Mare Cyanide Disaster, Baia Mare, Romania
(January 30, 2000) A rupture from a defective dam containing gold and copper mining “tailings” sent tons of heavy metal wastes and around 120,000 cubic meters of water saturated with cyanide into the Somes, Tisza and Danube rivers. Massive loss of aquatic life was documented, especially in neighboring Hungary and Serbia. The operation was controlled by the Australian-Romanian joint venture AURUL, located in Baia Mare, Romania. The parent company, Esmeralda Exploration, blamed heavy snowfall for the failed dam.
Due to a speedy response by the Romanian government, no casualties were reported (although some children were sickened from eating fish from the contaminated rivers). Test of river water and sediments after the accident, found cyanide levels between 300 and 700 times above pollution standards. Copper and zinc concentrations also exceeded by many times “safe” pollution thresholds.
Exposed metal ore tailings, when dry, can produce toxic dust. To reduce this problem, and to extract any remaining gold, the process of gold cyanidation is employed, which uses cyanide to extract any gold traces from mineral ores. The by-product of this controversial process is vast quantities of cyanide-laced water and heavy metal waste. Cyanide is a highly lethal chemical. There are thousands of mining waste dumps (many without dam containment) scattered all over the world, most situated near streams, rivers and large bodies of water.
9) [MAL Rt] Red Mud spill, Ajka, Hungary
(October 4, 2010) The most recent environmental disaster on my list, the effects of this wave of caustic sludge are still being felt even as the story fades from the news.
Efforts were still underway to contain the spread of the red sludge spill into the Danube River (and this is not the only incident on or near the Danube to make my list) as of late October. The “wall of sludge” — a massive, corrosive slurry of bauxite-aluminum processing by-products — was unleashed on several Hungarian villages, initially over a 40 square kilometer area. The toxic red mud drowned at least 9 people, injured hundreds with caustic burns, destroyed numerous homes, and left numerous “fish kills” and aquatic die-offs it its wake. The slow moving wall of sludge made its way into several streams emptying into the Raba river, which empties into the Danube. The cause of the structural collapse is not officially known yet, but it was believed that a very wet summer had caused part of the wall to erode. The company blames human error.
The bauxite (an ore of aluminum) processing plant was formerly owned and operated by the Hungarian government, but is now privately owned by the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Company. The company apologized for its mistake. Red mud from aluminum processing is highly corrosive and polluting, contains several heavy metals and is also mildly radioactive. The owner of the plant was recently arrested. Though the efforts to stop the spread appear to be working, authorities fear another breach of the reservoir is possible (another 500,000 cubic meters remains). To see VIDEO of this disaster as it unfolded, check out this recent post by Zachary Shahan.
8} Seveso Dioxin Gas Leak, Seveso, Italy
(July 10, 1976) A pesticide plant in the town of Seveso, Italy, unintentionally released a large plume of a dioxin-based gas-vapor (TCDD, or tetrachlorodibenzoparadioxin), blanketing some 37, 000 residents with ultra-high levels of the chemical which is known to be carcinogenic even in small dosages.
Hundreds were evacuated and thousands treated for dioxin poisoning (the most obvious sign of which was the horrible, pustular form of acne that dioxin exposure causes). Tens of thousands of animals were were subsequently slaughtered to prevent TCDD from entering the food chain. Thanks to the prescience of the doctors who treated the exposed populace, thousands of saved blood samples from the victims would provide a large-scale data set for future quantifying of the scope of the mass-poisoning.
Today, throughout Western Europe, the name “Seveso” has become synonymous with a law regulating chemical industry practices all over the continent. The Seveso law requires all facilities manufacturing, handling or storing hazardous materials to inform the authorities and the surrounding communities, and, to develop and publicize accident prevention and emergency response plans.
7) [tie] Exxon-Valdez oil spill, Prince William Sound, Alaska / Prestige oil spill, Coasts of Spain and France
(March 24, 1989) Due to navigational errors (and an inebriated captain), the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, splitting its single-walled hull, and spewing more than 10 million gallons (over 40 million liters) of crude oil into and onto the unspoiled, ecologically fragile coastline. Hundreds of thousands of fish, tens of thousands of bids, and many thousands of marine mammals (including 22 Orca whales) were poisoned, suffocated and killed by the thick, massive blanket of crude.
The disaster led to the implementation of a European law banning single-hull ships from European ports. This law is having world-wide impact and forcing most in the oil shipping industry to utilize double-hull tankers. The Exxon Valdez, however, still cruises the world’s oceans under the name Dong Fang Ocean.
The research team from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated that 26,000 gallons (55, 000 liters) of Valdez oil remain scattered along 11 hectares of beach and coast line. Some of these oil patches (comprising only 4% of the total spilled) show no signs of decaying. For a 20 year follow-up report on this spill, see my 2009 Ecolocalizer post).
(November 13, 2002) The Prestige was the name of a Greek-owned, single-hulled oil tanker. Severe ocean weather had damaged the integrity of the ship’s hull. The captain of the ship tried to find an entry port to dock the ship and attempt repairs, however, the Spanish, French and Portuguese governments, afraid of a possible spill in proximity to their famed coastlines, refused to allow its entry into their ports. Not long after, the ship’s hull failed, and the ship split in two and sank off the Galician coast of Spain.
Over the next several days, an estimated 74,000 tons of heavy fuel oil spilled into the sea, eventually washing ashore and contaminated nearly half of the beaches along the Spanish and French Atlantic coasts. The toxic fuel caused an estimated 100,000 bird deaths (especially hit hard were Guillemot, Razorbill and Puffin species) and extensive damage to coral reefs. The toxic effects of the fuel spill on many species marine life (including several shark species) are still being felt. The Prestige spill is considered to be the largest environmental disaster in the history of Europe.
6) Hurricane Katrina (Aftermath) floods, New Orleans, Louisiana
(August 23 – 30, 2005) One might at first wonder why hurricane Katrina made the list as it was a natural disaster. However, the environmental impact, damage and death toll of this natural event was made more severe due to environmental recklessness over the previous decades; hundreds of hectares of salt marsh and numerous barrier islands were dredged up and/or removed from the mouth and delta region of the Mississippi River. These marshes function as natural “sponges”, absorbing excess water from storm surges. The barrier islands (composed mostly of sand and sediments from the river’s outflow) offered additional protection to the below-sea-level port city from high seas.
Had city and state planners heeded warnings from ecologists and environmental scientists years early, the damage to the levees (which failed hours after the storm had made landfall) would most likely not have been so severe, and may have even contained the rising water levels. Instead, to allow for freer shipping lanes, many sand islands and large tracts of salt marshes were dredged and removed. Katrina made landfall as a level 5 hurricane, and the subsequent flooding of 80% of the city of New Orleans resulted in the deaths of more than 1000 human residents (one of the worst natural disasters in our history in terms of human lives lost) and countless animals.
5) Mayak nuclear waste tank explosion, Chelyabinsk, U.S.S.R.
(September 29, 1957) A Lesser known nuclear accident (possibly the first such disaster), the Mayak nuclear waste explosion was by some estimates more environmentally lethal than Chernobyl (certainly more people were killed initially). The Soviets kept the disaster (possibly several) for 30 years. The fact that this disaster is so little known, only highlights one’s sense of a horrific human experience nearly erased from historical memory.
One early fall morning, a storage tank containing an unknown volume of nuclear waste exploded, killing 200+ people and exposing over a quarter million more to dangerous radiation levels. No studies of the after effects and health impacts of this first, Nuclear Age, accidental horror are known outside of Russia. It is estimated that up to a half million people have been irradiated by one or more accidents at the plant, receiving in some cases 20 times the radiation dose than the surviving Chernobyl victims. The surrounding lake district is also highly contaminated. Mayak, formerly known as Chelyabinsk-40, was built in the late 1940’s, and was part of the USSR’s nuclear weapons program. It is still in operation to this day.
Between 1958 and 1991, some thirty contaminated village communities were relocated and their original locations removed from Soviet maps.
4) Southern Leyte rock-slide/avalanche, S. Leyte Province, Philippines
(February, 2006) After a solid week of heavy rains, and a minor earthquake, a massive avalanche of rock, soil and debris poured into a populated valley of Southern Leyte Province in the Philippines, burying the mountain village of Guinsaugon in the town of Saint Bernard. Thousands were killed including 250 children who were attending elementary school at the time. More than 1500 persons remain “missing” to this day.
The disaster has been attributed to continuous illegal logging of the mountainside forests that surrounded the valley (leaving few root systems to hold back the soil), and, additionally, unregulated mining over several decades had left large tracts of rock and debris along the mountain sides. These factors, coupled with the rains and slight earthquake, created a disastrous “perfect storm”. The tragic loss of life — one of the largest, human death tolls from a single such event — is a painful reminder of what happens when we recklessly exploit natural resources (and what can happen when vital information about industrial risks is kept from the people) .
3) British Petroleum Oil Spill, Gulf of Mexico
(April 20, 2010) One of the most recent disasters on my list (and the second from 2010), the explosion and massive leak (beneath the Deep Water Horizon oil rig) resulted from failed sensors and shut-off valves nearly one mile under the sea. Eleven workers were killed in the initial explosion and fire. The rig was owned by TransOcean, but leased and controlled by BP.
The leak of an estimated 60 million barrels of mixed-grade oil from the unplugged well continued for more than four months. Over 34, 000 birds (including egrets and blue heron), hundreds of sea turtles, some six dozen dolphins and other marine vertebrates and invertebrates were poisoned, suffocated and died in the surface layers of the spill. As of September, 2010, when much of the surface spill had been dispersed (using millions of gallons of a harmful dispersant called Corexit), reports of underwater (mid ocean depth) oil plumes extending for dozens of miles were being reported. The long-term effects on marine life and the regional economy caused by this spill — considered the worst in history — will be felt and studied for decades to come.
2) Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant reactor meltdown, Chernobyl, Russia
(April 26, 1986) A reactor shutdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Facility was used to conduct a poorly-planned test; engineers believed that cooling of the reactor could be maintained in the event of an external power failure. They were wrong. A run-away nuclear reaction resulted in a horrific fire and explosion, killing 50 personnel immediately and releasing more than 400 times more radiation than the Hiroshima atom bomb.
Emergency personnel sent to the scene were not informed of the risks and no adequate plan for evacuation of nearby residents had been conceived. More than 4,000 cancer deaths were attributed to the widespread radioactive contamination, which hit Belarus the hardest. Elevated atmospheric radiation levels were found as far away as the British Isles.
A thirty mile radius “exclusion zone” was established around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Radiation levels at the site remain high and an unknown amount of nuclear material still lays buried under the rubble.
1) Union Carbide cyanide gas leak, Bhopal, India
(December 3, 1984) A Union Carbide India Limited pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India, accidentally unleashed a deadly chemical fog, leaving several thousand corpses strewn across the city, victims of lethal poisoning by an isocyanate gas. Mass panic ensued and 50,000 more people required medical treatment from exposure to the gas. Activists have claimed that another 20,000 deaths can be attributed to the gas leak.
Government reports initially found some evidence of insufficient security and safety measures at the plant (including a lack of safety valves to prevent water mixing into the methyl isocyanate tanks, triggering the chemical reaction). Scrubbers that were meant to clean any leak were apparently down for repairs at the time. Union Carbide asserted that sabotage was the only possible cause of the gas leak (although who or why anyone would sabotage the plant was not put forth). The company, now a subsidiary of Dow Chemical, settled a lawsuit by the government of India for 400 million USD.
Bhopal has become synonymous with toxic industrial nightmares and corporate indifference to human welfare. It is considered to be the worst industrial chemical disaster ever. The disaster in Bhopal raised awareness about the use of such hazardous chemicals (pressuring businesses to find less lethal compounds) and the risky placement of manufacturing plants near human populations. Crisis risk assessments and fail-safe protections for most all hazardous processes have become industry standards.
[UPDATE Sept. 27, 2013; ADDENDUM] This author has only recently become aware of the Minamata mercury poisoning disaster (currently being featured in the Sept. 27 edition of Science magazine) that is possibly the oldest, long-term, large-scale, environmental disaster on record. Minamata is a small coastal village in southern Japan. In 1956, Minamata ” was the site of one of the world’s worst mercury pollution incidents, after a chemical plant dumped the toxin into the sea for decades. Thousands of people who ate contaminated fish and shellfish became ill, disabled, or died. Many children were born with birth defects. It took decades for the company and the government to officially admit the link. Today, the episode continues to affect residents and has split the community in sometimes surprising ways. ” [quoted text source] In January of 2013, a new global agreement to reduce mercury emissions (the Minamata Convention on Mercury) was named after the site.
Notes to the reader:
Additional info on the Tennessee Valley coal ash spill came from the Seattle Times.
You can also read a more personal account of the Love Canal disaster at Environmental Chemistry.
If you want more, a more comprehensive list of environmental disasters is on Wikipedia.
Top Photo: child victim of Bhopal disaster, from siliconeer.com
Satellite Image of Caustic Red Mud Spill: Digitalglobe; cc–by 3.0
Leyte Rock Slide: socyberty.com website (see link above)
Prestige Cleanup: Eutopio; cc-by-sa 3.0
Brown Pelicans: International Bird Rescue Research Center; cc–by 2.0
Bhopal Memorial: Luca Frediani; cc-by-sa 2.0