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15 Worst Man-Made Environmental Disasters in American History

Environmental issues are a major interest of Kelley's, especially pollution, climate change, deforestation and endangered species.

Aftermath of the Camp Fire in northern California in November 2018

Aftermath of the Camp Fire in northern California in November 2018

Man-Made Disasters

Man-made disasters will always be with us, and the United States has had its share of those. Many resulted in no injuries or deaths, though others certainly did, their toll considerable or even impossible to calculate. But all have had a profound effect on the minds of many people regarding environmental issues.

Please note that acts of war or terrorism do not qualify for this list. Those disasters were intentional, not accidental.

So, let’s begin the countdown!

15. Hazardous Oil Wells in California and Other States

In Southern California, about 35,000 oil wells have been abandoned by the companies that produced them because they’ve sucked the oil dry or simply abandoned them because the price of oil in recent times has made their operation unprofitable; therefore, many employees of these companies have been laid off. These wells are considered toxic waste sites because the hydrocarbons left in them may contaminate groundwater, and the toxic and flammable fumes leaking from them can waft into businesses, homes, or schools. Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, also leaks from many of these wells, exacerbating climate change.

If enough money is available to clean up these abandoned wells, this would rectify the situation somewhat. Unfortunately, scores of the aforementioned oil or gas companies have gone out of business and/or haven’t provided enough money for the remediation of these deep holes—three to five feet in diameter—many of which have not been plugged, presenting a hazard to people or animals that might fall into them. It costs the state of California between $40,000 and $152,000 to decommission each of these derelict oil or gas wells, a total cost of about $6 billion, much of which will have to be paid by taxpayers!

Many other states in the US, particularly Texas, have abandoned oil and gas wells, perhaps as many as three million in total, two million of which are unplugged, according to EPA estimates. Unplugged oil wells are particularly bad because they can leak millions of metric tons of methane into the atmosphere every year. (A potent greenhouse gas, methane is 84 times worse than carbon dioxide.) Part of the proposed Green New Deal could provide an allocation of funds for capping these unplugged wells, thereby putting thousands of laid-off oil workers back to work as well.

"The Poisoning of Michigan," a book written by Joyce Egginton

"The Poisoning of Michigan," a book written by Joyce Egginton

14. Cattlegate PBB Contamination

In the state of Michigan in 1973, instead of a nutritional supplement, polybrominated biphenyls (PBB) was accidentally fed to 1.5 million chickens, 30,000 cattle, and other livestock. PBB is an industrial chemical frequently used as a flame retardant for plastics used in the manufacture of electrical appliances, textiles, televisions, computers, and plastic foams. Studies show that exposure to PBB in humans can cause serious health problems, including skin disorders, nervous and immune system effects, as well as deleterious effects on the liver, kidney, and thyroid gland; it may also cause malignancies, particularly breast cancer in women, according to the International Agency for the Research of Cancer.

Six to eight million Michigan residents may have been exposed to PBB by eating the contaminated meat, milk, or eggs before it was removed from the market one year after the accidental feeding. The resulting scandal sometimes referred to as Cattlegate, has remained a worrisome environmental issue ever since. In 2004, studies by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) discovered that Michigan residents have elevated levels of PBB in their blood. Unfortunately, PBB can linger in the human body for years or even decades.

A registry of 7,500 people exposed to PBB—either by producing it, using it, or eating it—is kept so that the long-term effects of PBB contamination can be documented. Unfortunately, researchers say that PBB may be transmitted by DNA through many generations, so the scientific investigation of PBB contamination, particularly in Michigan, may continue for quite some time.

13. Bunker Hill Mine

Closed since the 1980s because of environmental concerns, the Bunker Hill Mine, located in the Silver Valley of northern Idaho, may soon reopen after decades of cleanup. At one time, the US Geological Survey estimated that Silver Valley mines, of which the Bunker Hill Mine is the major extractor, deposited more than 880,000 thousand tons of lead into the area’s waterways between 1884 to 1967. And over the life of the Bunker Hill Mine, estimates are that it dumped 75 million tons of toxic sludge containing lead, zinc, arsenic, and cadmium into Lake Coeur d’Alene, making the water toxic to animals and humans.

In 1983, the EPA declared the Bunker Hill Mine and smelter complex a Superfund site, the nation’s second-largest, actually. Then the EPA moved to the site and began cleanup operations, which cost $900 million. Unfortunately, many people think the site is still leaking heavy metals and other toxic substances into nearby lakes, streams, and rivers.

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“This watershed needs time to heal and billions of dollars of remedial cleanup to become a functioning ecosystem again,” says Phil Cernera, an environmental scientist and local Native American.

But the Bunker Hill Mine may soon reopen now that the EPA thinks the mine and smelter have been sufficiently cleaned up. By the way, there are other mining operations in the Silver Valley.

Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, where uranium processing took place in downtown St. Louis in the 1940s.

Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, where uranium processing took place in downtown St. Louis in the 1940s.

12. Atomic Homefront

The aforementioned name pertains to an HBO documentary entitled Atomic Homefront (2017). The film tells the story of scores of people who reside in two North St. Louis suburbs, near which radioactive waste—uranium, thorium, and radium—was buried in a landfill in the 1940s. (This nuclear material was produced for the Manhattan Project during World War Two.) Residents in these towns claim that because of this contamination, many people in the area have contracted cancer, autoimmune disorders, and suffered birth defects.

Also, in 1973, in nearby Bridgeton, Missouri, 47,000 tons of nuclear waste was illegally dumped in the West Lake landfill. Eventually, in 1990, this area became an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site. Moreover, in recent years, an uncontrolled, underground fire has been moving toward this landfill, a potential calamity since the fire could burn the radioactive waste, sending toxic particles airborne and contaminating other local areas, including perhaps the nearby Missouri River. Republic Services, which owns the West Lake landfill, claims that the toxic waste is maintained in “a safe and managed state.”

Many residents think that before they moved into this area, they were not told about the buried radioactive material. Therefore, they want this contamination removed, or the federal and state governments should pay to relocate them.


11. Three-Mile Island Nuclear Accident

In March 1979, one of three nuclear reactors at the Three-Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania nearly melted down, a catastrophe that could have vented massive amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere. The trouble started when a valve stuck open, allowing large amounts of nuclear reactor coolant to escape, which raised the temperature of the nuclear reactor. Some human error added to the trouble, but very little radioactivity was leaked or vented into the environment. Nobody got sick—nobody died.

Nevertheless, the nuclear power industry in the U.S. took a big hit in the public relations department, a downturn from which it has never recovered. Since the Three Mile Island disaster, few nuclear power plants have been built in the U.S., and some of those operating have been removed. Moreover, since the nuclear emergencies at the Chernobyl Meltdown in 1986 and at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in March 2011, nuclear power around the world is now seen as a potentially dangerous means of generating power. Concerns about nuclear proliferation and terrorism have increased the controversy as well.

10. Middle West Dust Bowl (Dirty Thirties)

Times were hard during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and they got much worse for people living in the Midwest when vast dust clouds roiled over thousands of square miles of the U.S., at times reaching as far east as New York City. The cause was drought and soil erosion on a massive scale in the Great Plains of the U.S. and Canada. Farmers, some of whom knew little or nothing about the ecology of the Plains, used tractors to till deeply into the prairie grass, exposing the moist earth to wind and sun, a farming technique that led to disaster. The topsoil simply blew away, leaving nothing fertile to grow crops.

This resultant Dust Bowl, as it became labeled, affected over one million acres of land. When thousands of people in places such as Oklahoma and Texas could no longer grow food, they moved west to states such as California, a story dramatized in such novels as John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men.

9. Mississippi Delta Dead Zone

Since the bad old days of the Dust Bowl, farmers in the Middle West have learned how to effectively till the soil without causing vast dust clouds, but now another problem has presented itself: Eutrophication. The chemical fertilizers many farmers now use pump vast amounts of nitrogen and phosphates into rivers such as the Mississippi, creating hypoxic areas known as dead zones. Algae proliferate in such areas, killing fish and other aquatic life. In the Mississippi Delta region of the Gulf of Mexico, this monstrous, suffocating discharge of chemicals and the resultant algal blooms cover some six to eight thousand square miles (the size of some states in the eastern U.S).

Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency have hoped to reduce the size of this dead zone to about 2,000 square miles, but this hasn’t happened. The use of chemical fertilizers to produce corn and soybeans is the biggest problem in this regard, so unless American farmers grow considerably less and/or convert to organic farming, the Mississippi Delta Dead Zone will probably get larger in the coming years and decades.

Exxon Valdez oil tanker

Exxon Valdez oil tanker

8. Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

In March 1989, the Exxon Valdez, a massive oil tanker, collided with a reef in Prince William Sound, a pristine inlet in the Alaskan wilderness. The wreck dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean, a spill covering over 11,000 square miles of ocean and 1,300 miles of coastline. At the time, it was the largest oil spill in the history of the U.S. But detractors such as the Sierra Club and Greenpeace have said that the estimated spill was much worse—25 to 32 million gallons. Reportedly a drunken captain caused the disaster, but he turned out to be a scapegoat. The real cause was that the ship’s radar system hadn’t been properly maintained and wasn’t even activated during the time of the wreck.

Since the spill happened in a remote area—no roads led to this faraway place—cleanup was a nightmare upon a nightmare. Much of the solvents and dispersants used in the cleanup turned out to be toxic, and mechanically cleaning up the spilled oil was never a practical solution in such a fragile marine environment. Countless thousands of wild animals died in the spill, and the seafood industry in the region collapsed. Moreover, estimates suggest that only about 10 percent of the oil was ever recovered, and to this day, much oil remains in the environment of Prince William Sound.

7. Camp Fire

California has suffered greatly from the many wildfires that have ravaged it in recent times. The Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive ever in state history, killing 85 people and costing over $16 billion. Of course, wildfires can have many causes—lightning, unattended campfires, exhaust from vehicles or equipment, or arson—but this one was started because of a faulty power line installed by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), which was eventually convicted of committing 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter!

On November 8, 2018, the Camp Fire, fanned by 50 mph winds, quickly became a firestorm that swept through the towns of Concow, Magalia, Butte Creek Canyon, and Paradise, all of which are located in Northern Butte County, California. As a ferocious wall of flames approached the towns, many people had little or no warning the wildfire was quickly approaching and that firefighters would not be able to stop it any time soon. So People rushed to evacuate these towns on foot, horseback, or riding in vehicles. In the town of Paradise alone, 50 people were burned to death, died from smoke inhalation, or were crushed by falling trees. Air pollution from the fire could be seen in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Central Valley of California—and even New York City, New York.

Because more than 18,000 buildings were destroyed in the fire, toxic chemicals such as asbestos, volatile organic compounds, heavy metals, arsenic, and dioxins could be found throughout the ashes and charred debris of the burned-out areas, turning what was once a forested urban area into squares miles toxic waste sites. Consequently, much groundwater throughout these scorched-over homes, businesses, and schools was contaminated as well.

In fairness to PG&E, bad wiring wasn’t the only cause of this conflagration. California has been experiencing mostly drought conditions for many years, and the area where the Camp Fire struck had received little rain in months. Poor forestry management practices have also been blamed, as well as the building of towns and residential subdivisions in areas where wildfires are more likely. And many claim that climate change is also responsible for these horrific wildfires, which seem to be increasing in number and ferocity across the globe in the present day.

Ringwood mines landfill

Ringwood mines landfill

6. Ringwood Mines Landfill Site

The Ringwood Mines Landfill Site is a 500-acre area located in Ringwood, New Jersey. Owned by the Ford Motor Plant in the late 1960s to early 1970s, the site was used for waste disposal for its nearby Mahwah, New Jersey, automobile assembly plant. This waste was mostly sludge, a toxic mix of various industrial chemicals and heavy metals, which polluted the environment to the point that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated the area as a Superfund site in need of remediation, which began in 1984. By 2011, over 47,000 tons of contaminated earth had been removed from the site.

Compounding the problem, many people still reside in this woodsy rural area, namely the Ramapough Mountain Indians, a tribe of about 5,000 folks. These people claim that the toxic waste in the area has sickened and killed them, but proving scientific cause and effect in the legal arena has been difficult. An HBO production titled Mann V. Ford (2011) chronicles the plight of the Ramapough people, who claim they have seen scores of their people die from cancer. According to the documentary, the plaintiffs eventually settled out of court with the Ford Motor Company, but for only thousands of dollars per plaintiff.

5. Picher Lead Contamination

Picher, Oklahoma, had been one of the biggest mining towns in the country. Lead and zinc were mined there—$20 billion worth from 1917 to 1947. Thousands of people worked in the mines and support services, so times were good for lots of folks. But all the while, toxic waste piled up in Picher, and the waterways in the area turned reddish brown. In 1996, investigators discovered that 34 percent of the children in Picher had lead poisoning, mainly because lead had contaminated the groundwater. Eventually, Picher and other nearby communities became part of the Tar Creek Superfund site.

Many buildings and homes in the Pitcher area became seriously undermined by decades of digging, and the town became a very dangerous and unhealthy place to live. In 2009, the state of Oklahoma "dis-incorporated" the town of Picher, and, with the help of federal money, people began moving away. Now Picher is a ghost town and considered one of the most toxic places in the U.S.

Love Canal today

Love Canal today

4. Love Canal

The story of Love Canal has become an iconic tale of the people vs. corporate interests. In the early decades of the 1900s, the Hooker Chemical Company (now Occidental Petroleum) buried 21,000 tons of toxic waste in the Love Canal section of Niagara Falls, New York. (Love Canal had once been the site of a canal excavation project to connect the city to the Niagara River.) In 1953, Hooker sold the land to the city of Niagara Falls for $1 while telling the city about the presence of toxic waste, and then housing and a school were eventually built on the site.

Then, in the 1970s, people in the Love Canal area began reporting health problems, and then various scientific investigations began. Among other toxic substances, dioxin and benzene were found in parts per billion (parts per trillion are considered dangerous for dioxin.) By 1978, the story of Love Canal had become a national media event. At one point, President Carter declared Love Canal a disaster site, and federal money was given to the residents to help them relocate. In 1995, the EPA sued Occidental Petroleum and forced the company to pay $129 million to help pay for the cleanup of the site. Astonishingly, some people still live in the Love Canal area!

Libby asbestos mine

Libby asbestos mine

3. Libby Asbestos Contamination

Beginning in the 1920s, a mine in Libby, Montana, produced most of the world’s supply of vermiculite, a mineral used to make insulation in homes and businesses. Vermiculite, in its impure form, may contain asbestos, a known carcinogen. In 1990, the federal government investigated the mine, and the W.R. Grace Company, which owns it, eventually closed the operation. Various sources, such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, have claimed that the asbestos at the mining site has given numerous people serious health problems and that over 400 people have died from diseases caused by exposure to asbestos.

Since then, the EPA has declared the area a Superfund site and spent millions of dollars on cleanup; it also fined the W.R. Grace Company, hoping to reimburse some of the money. The U.S. government is also considering filing criminal charges, alleging that the W.R. Grace Company did not inform its employees of the dangers of mining vermiculite. The cleanup of this toxic site—perhaps the worst in the history of the US—as well as the litigation, potential and otherwise, continues to this day.

2. Deepwater Horizon Oil Gusher

In April 2010, an explosion rocked the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The rig subsequently sank into the Gulf, killing 11 people. No longer sealed at the seafloor, the damaged rig leaked oil into the ocean—and it gushed for 87 days, spilling an estimated 210 million gallons of crude oil into the sea. Oil dispersant was used to spread the oil around, but it turned out to be more tox