Top Ten Environmental Disasters

As the Gulf of Mexico oil spill shows much interest for everyone, its time to take a look back at history's greatest environmental tragedies.


The worst nuclear power plant disaster in history. On April 26, 1986, one of the reactors at the Chernobyl power plant in the Ukraine exploded, resulting in a nuclear meltdown that sent massive amounts of radiation into the atmosphere, reportedly more than the fallout from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That radiation drifted westward, across what was then Soviet Russia, towards Europe. Since then, thousands of kids have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and an almost 20-mile area around the plant remains off limits. Reactor #4 has been sealed off in a large, concrete sarcophagus, which is slowly deteriorating. While the rest of the plant ceased operation in 2000, almost 4,000 workers still report there for various assignments.(Link)


Around midnight on Dec. 2, 1984, an accident at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India resulted in 45 tons of poisonous methyl isocyanate escaping from the facility. Thousands died within hours. More followed over the subsequent months, about 15,000 in all. In total, about half a million people were affected in some way. Those that survived suffered blindness, organ failure, and other awful bodily malfunctions. A shockingly high number of children in the area have been born with all manner of birth defects. In 1989, Union Carbide paid out about half a billion dollars to victims, an amount the afflicted say is not nearly enough to deal with the decades-long consequences. Bhopal remains the worst industrial disaster ever.(link)

Kuwaiti Oil Fires

Saddam Hussein knew the war was over. He could not have Kuwait, so he wasn't about to let anyone else benefit from its riches. As the 1991 Persian Gulf War drew to a close, Hussein sent men to blow up Kuwaiti oil wells. Approximately 600 were set ablaze, and the fires — literally towering infernos — burned for seven months. The Gulf was awash in poisonous smoke, soot, and ash. Black rain fell. Lakes of oil were created. As NASA wrote, "The sand and gravel on the land's surface combined with oil and soot to form a layer of hardened "tarcrete" over almost 5 percent of the country's area." Scores of livestock and other animals died from the oily mist, their lungs blackened by the liquid.(Link)

Love Canal

In 1978, Love Canal, located near Niagara Falls in upstate New York, was a nice little working-class enclave with hundreds of houses and a school. It just happened to sit atop 21,000 tons of toxic industrial waste, which had been buried underground in the 1940's and 50's by a local company. Over the years, the waste had begun to bubble up into backyards and cellars. By 1978, the problem was unavoidable, and hundreds of families sold their houses to the federal government and evacuated the area. The disaster led to the formation in 1980 of the Superfund program, which helps pay for the cleanup of toxic sites.(Link)

The Exxon Valdez

On the night of March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef in the pristine waters of Alaska's Prince William Sound. The first of what would turn out to be 10.8 million gallons of oil began to spew forth into the cold waters. It would eventually spread almost 500 miles from the original crash site and stain thousands of miles of coastline. Hundreds upon thousands of birds, fish, seals, otters, and other animals would perish as a result, despite the mobilization of more than 11,000 people and 1,000 boats as part of the clean-up. While the Exxon Valdez disaster is considered to be the largest man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history, the Gulf of Mexico spill may eventually surpass it in severity. (Link)

Tokaimura Nuclear Plant

On September 30, 1999, Japan's worst nuclear accident happened in a facility northeast of Tokyo. Three workers at a uranium processing plant in Tokaimura, then the center of Japanese nuclear power industry, improperly mixed a uranium solution. A blue flash heralded the trouble. As TIME wrote, "One [worker] was knocked unconscious. Within minutes, the others were nauseated, and their hands and faces were burned bright crimson." Two ended up dying, and hundreds more were exposed to various levels of radiation. (Link)

The Aral Sea

In early April, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon traveled to Central Asia, where he lay eyes upon a "graveyard of ships" — rusting fishing trawlers and other vessels stranded in a desert that stretched for miles in all directions. It was the Aral Sea...or what used to be the Aral Sea. Situated between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the Aral was once the fourth-largest lake on Earth, as big as Ireland. Since the 1960's however, when Soviet irrigation projects diverted several of its source waterways, the Aral has shrunk by 90%. What was once a vibrant, fish-stocked lake is now a massive desert that produces salt and sand storms that kill plant life and have negative effects on human and animal health for hundreds of miles around. Scores of large boats sit tilted in the sand — a tableau both sad and surreal.(Link)

Seveso Dioxin Cloud

On July 10, 1976, an explosion at a northern Italian chemical plant released a thick, white cloud of dioxin that quickly settled down on the town of Seveso, north of Milan. First, the animals began to die. As TIME wrote about a month after the incident, "One farmer saw his cat keel over, and when he went to pick up the body, the tail fell off. When authorities dug the cat up for examination two days later, said the farmer, all that was left was its skull." It was four days before people began to feel ill effects — including "nausea, blurred vision and, especially among children, the disfiguring sores of a skin disease known as chloracne" — and weeks before the town itself was evacuated. Residents eventually returned to the town, and today a large park sits above two giant tanks that hold the remains of hundreds of slaughtered animals, the destroyed factory, and the soil that received the largest doses of dioxin. (Link)

Minamata Disease

For years, residents of Minamata, a town located on Kyushu (Japan's most southwesterly island), had observed odd behavior among animals, particularly household cats. The felines would suddenly convulse and sometimes leap into the sea to their deaths — townspeople referred to the behavior as "cat dancing disease." In 1956, the first human patient of what soon became known as Minamata disease was identified. Symptoms included convulsions, slurred speech, loss of motor functions, and uncontrollable limb movements. Three years later, an investigation concluded that the affliction was a result of industrial poisoning of Minamata Bay by the Chisso Corporation, which had long been one of the port town's biggest employers. As a result of waste water pollution by the plastic manufacturer, large amounts of mercury and other heavy metals found their way into the fish and shellfish that comprised a large part of the local diet. Over the decades, thousands of residents have slowly suffered and died from the disease. It has taken as long for some to receive their due compensation from the corporation. (Link)

Three Mile Island

"Nuclear Nightmare" screamed the April 9, 1979 cover of TIME Magazine. On March 28, the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania partially melted down. Coming two weeks after the release of the Jane Fonda film The China Syndrome, Three Mile Island became the natural outlet for fears about the nuclear power industry. The ironic thing is, that while it has become known as one of America's worst nuclear incidents, nothing much really happened. No one died and the facility itself is still going strong. While the near meltdown is often cited as the reason that a new nuclear plant has not been built in America in the past thirty years, the industry had begun to slow down construction before Three Mile Island ever happened. (Link)


Related Posts with Thumbnails