10 Environmental Disasters

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A Brief History

On June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River near downtown Cleveland, Ohio caught fire, sparking a story in Time Magazine and becoming the symbol for the ecology movement.  Nature and mankind have worked separately or together throughout history to create environmental disasters.  Here we list 10 of the more spectacular ones, the order of which is the ones we find most entertaining.

Digging Deeper

10. Leaded Fuel, 1920’s-1970’s.

Discovered to be an effective anti-knock compound for gasoline by Charles Kettering and Tom Midgely in 1921, the compound tetraethyl lead made by Dupont was necessary for engines to operate at higher compression, thus much more powerfully and efficiently.  Dubbed “ethyl” to avoid the negative association of lead and lead poisoning, the leaded fuels had higher octane and also lubricated valves and valve seats, prolonging engine life.  As far back as 1924 the dangers of lead pollution caused by the leaded fuel was becoming apparent, but not until the 1970’s was something done about it, with the US beginning the phase out of leaded gas in 1973.  The world wide phase out of leaded gas is estimated to have saved 1.2 million lives, trillions of dollars, and prevented 58 million crimes (per the United Nations).

9.  DDT, 1939-1972.

The insect killing properties of DDT were discovered in 1939, and during World War II it was used extensively by the US military to prevent malaria and other insect borne diseases (including fighting lice).  Gaining wide use after the war, especially in agriculture, the first rumblings of a serious problem were voiced by Rachel Carson in her 1962 book, Silent Spring.  The environmental effect of DDT on birds, fish, wildlife and humans got some serious attention, and DDT was banned for most agricultural uses in 1972.  The damage to living things was largely due to the persistent nature of the stuff, as it accumulates in plants and animals over time until the levels become toxic.  The ban is credited with saving the Bald Eagle and other birds.

8.  Great Fire, 1910.

The largest wildfire in US history, it destroyed over 3 million acres in only 2 days!  The fire occurred in Montana, Idaho and Washington, killing 87 people.  Luckily, the death toll was much less than certain other fires, and most of the dead were firefighters (the worst firefighter death toll in US history until the 9/11 attacks).  The fire was started by hot cinders from locomotives setting the unusually dry grass and brush on fire.

7.  Indian Ocean Tsunami, 2004.

Another example of Mother Nature playing rough, this was the worst tsunami in modern times, killing about 230,000 to 280,000 people from Indonesia to India, with Indonesia suffering the most.  The death toll could be much higher if deaths due to disease and ruined medical facilities could be calculated.  The earthquake that caused the massive tidal waves was the third most powerful ever measured on a seismograph.  Over 1.6 million people were made homeless, billions of dollars worth of property damage was done, and environmental damage to shore ecologies, reefs, wetlands, and plant life was heavy.

6.  Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, 2010.

The explosion and sinking of a British Petroleum oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, this incident spilled more oil into the ocean than any other incident, perhaps by as much as 31% more.  Unfortunately, all 11 men on the rig were killed, and before the leak could finally be stopped 87 days later close to 5 million barrels of oil had gushed into the Gulf.  Fish, birds, dolphins and all manner of sea and shore life, including plants were severely impacted by the disaster and will probably continue to be adversely affected for many years.  In 2013 dolphins were still dying at 6 times the normal rate and tuna were found to have developed deformities due to the spill.  So far (and more is likely to come) BP has generated over $42 billion in settlements, fines, etc.  Additional companies involved wereTransoceanic (the rig operator) and Halliburton (the company that made billions from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in no-bid contracts, including construction that electrocuted several soldiers in the shower).  Haliburton pleaded guilty to destroying evidence in this incident.

5.  Chernobyl, 1986.

This gem of a disaster was brought to you by slipshod Soviet management near the end of their crumbling empire.  The worst nuclear disaster anywhere in the world, 31 people died during the incident and thousands were exposed to radiation.  The disaster cost the Soviets 18 billion Rubles.  Estimates of 50,000 cases of cancer, about half fatal, are expected to have been caused by this disaster.  The incident resulted in a zone devoid of population of all except 300 people who have refused to leave.  Those that left are allowed to return safely in 20,000 years.  Thousands of abortions have resulted from women in the area terrified to bear children that may suffer birth defects.

4.  Three Mile Island, 1979.

Considered the worst nuclear disaster in US history, the nuclear electricity generating plant located in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania suffered a partial meltdown, allowing massive amounts of contaminated reactor coolant to escape into the atmosphere.  The clean up took 14 years and cost $1 billion.  Since this incident, no new nuclear plants have been authorized for construction other than those already authorized.  The incident had a chilling effect on nuclear plant construction around the world.

3.  Love Canal, 1953-1978.

This ironically named neighborhood of Niagara Falls, New York was the site of about 21,000 tons of toxic waste improperly disposed of by Hooker Chemical Company.  Hooker, now Occidental Petroleum, had bought the canal and filled it with their toxic waste, filling it in with dirt and selling it to the local school board for the building of a school.  In 1976 a pair of local newspaper reporters investigated numerous cases of birth defects and bizarre health problems rampant in the neighborhood.  Investigation showed that the toxic wastes were leaking into the local environment and 800 families were evacuated and the school demolished.  The federal government stepped in to seal off the leaking area from the rest of the area with only some success.  Occidental Petroleum paid a $129 million settlement, and naysayers claimed illnesses were caused by media reporting rather than chemicals!

2.  Krakatoa, 1883.

Mother Nature owns the rights to this disaster, a volcanic explosion and eruption in Indonesia that destroyed 2/3 of the island by that name and killed 36,000 people with the ensuing tsunamis.  With a sound heard as far as 3000 miles away, the explosions spewed 5 cubic miles of ash, lava and rock into the air.  About 165 villages and towns were destroyed, and the huge cloud of volcanic ash in the atmosphere lowered world temperatures by over 2 degrees F the following year, with climate adversely affected for 5 years.  The blast was 13,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima nuclear bomb, and at least 4 times more powerful than the largest nuclear bomb ever detonated.

1.  Cuyahoga River Fire, 1969.

The most famous of the at least 13 times the river has caught fire since the first fire in 1868, the 1969 fire was not the biggest on the river.  The 1952 Cuyahoga River fire was larger and did more damage.  When Time Magazine reported on the 1969 incident, calling the Cuyahoga the river that “oozes, rather than flows” and helping make Cleveland the laughingstock of the world, they used photographs of the 1952 fire in typical dishonest journalistic fashion.  Although the portion of the river through the industrial area of Cleveland is still a wasteland for fish because of dredging and poor aeration, the rest of the river is scenic and teeming with fish and wildlife.  There is even a Cuyahoga Valley National Park and the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railway.  The 1969 fire helped spur the creation of the Clean Water Act and other environmental measures, as well as a song by R.E.M. called Cuyahoga and an excellent beer by the Great Lakes Brewing Company called Burning River Pale Ale.

Question for students (and subscribers): Which disasters would you add to the list?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

The Return of The Cuyahoga “The Heartbreaking Yet Hopeful Story of a River, Once So Polluted It Caught Fire, And The Committed People Who Brought The River Back To Life”.  DVD.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.