When the peace of a community is shattered by man-made disaster – an oil spill, a toxic gas leak, a nuclear meltdown – a scar is left that may fade with passing decades but will never fully heal. While some may be able to clean up and return to a sense of normalcy, others stand fenced-off and unchanged like a silent memorial. Located around the globe, these seven catastrophic environmental disasters have had a profound effect upon the earth and local residents that continues today, as many as 50 years later.
Love Canal Community Contamination
In the late 1950s, the little neighborhood of Love Canal, New York seemed idyllic. Located just miles from the picturesque Niagara Falls, the land was purchased by the city from Hooker Chemical Company for a dollar. It was worth much less. The residents of the neighborhood’s 100 newly constructed homes had no idea that they were living atop one big hazardous chemical dumping ground.
But the consequences of building homes and a school where over 21,000 tons of toxic waste lurked just beneath the surface became all too clear by the 1970s with shockingly high rates of miscarriages, birth defects, cancer and nervous disorders. Resident Lois Gibbs led a campaign to uncover the cause, and a federal health emergency was declared, demolishing houses and relocating more than 800 families.
As a result of the tragedy, the Superfund Act was passed by Congress to hold polluters responsible for severe environmental damage. In 2004, Love Canal was finally declared clean, though most of the neighborhood remains abandoned – even though hundreds of similar toxic Superfund sites still sit waiting for their turn.
Three Mile Island Nuclear Meltdown
March 28, 1979 marked the beginning of a three-day series of “mechanical, electrical and human failures” that produced a catastrophic meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power facility in Pennsylvania.
Though the radiation released wasn’t significant enough to cause a public health crisis, the accident brought a general lack of oversight and emergency response planning in the nuclear power industry to light and led to a huge spike in local opposition to the construction of new nuclear power plants.
Cleanup and decontamination of the Three Mile Island accident site cost $975 million and wasn’t completed until 1993. Today, Three Mile Island is still in operation, though the generating station involved in the meltdown is no longer used. A radiation leak was investigated in November 2009, but federal officials say there was no threat to public safety.
Minamata Mercury Poisoning
It’s not common knowledge amongst Westerners, but the Minamata mercury incident in Japan was severe enough to get a disease named after it. A chemical company called Chisso Corporation disposed of thousands of tons of industrial wastewater containing methyl mercury in the town of Minamata from 1908 to 1968, which poisoned the local population through consumption of contaminated seafood.
What’s now known as Minamata Disease was discovered in 1956, when clusters of victims in fishing hamlets along the bay came forward with strange symptoms. Severe cases of the disease led to paralysis, insanity, coma and death within weeks of symptoms first appearing. Similar effects were seen in local animals like cats and birds.
Over 2,265 victims have been officially certified by the Japanese government – 1,784 of whom have died – but over 17,000 people have applied for certification. Chisso Corporation, which stopped using mercury in 1969, has spent $86 million compensating over 10,000 victims and was ordered to clean up the contamination in 2004.
Exxon-Valdez Oil Spill
Who can forget the Exxon-Valdez oil spill? 11 million gallons of sticky black crude oil fouled the pristine Prince William Sound in Alaska on March 23rd, 1989 after a tanker crashed into an iceberg as the captain napped. While it’s far from the largest oil spill in history, it caused the most environmental damage, and images of wildlife suffocating in oil hit the public hard.
10,000 workers spent four summers cleaning up 1,400 miles of coastline, and recent images of Prince William Sound seem to show total recovery. But swaths of oil are still buried just beneath the surface of many beaches and many species affected by the spill are still struggling. If there’s one positive thing that came out of this disaster, it’s the federal Oil Pollution Act, which changed critical industry practices and standards to prevent similar damage from subsequent spills.
Bhopal Gas Leak
The death toll may be as high as 35,000 and the nightmare still continues for victims of one of the most horrendous environmental disasters of all time. Half a million residents of Bhopal, India were poisoned on December 3rd, 1984 when the Union-Carbide pesticide manufacturing plant released extremely volatile methyl isocyanate gas and other toxins into the air due to lax safety standards and budget cuts. Bodies lined the streets and thousands more suffered agony, blindness and permanent health problems.
Many survivors unwittingly passed Bhopal’s legacy to their own children in the form of congenital defects, but that’s not the only way the incident still haunts the population. Union Carbide – now owned by Dow Chemical Company – never cleaned up the contamination and the factory site continues to leak deadly chemicals into the air, soil and water. The company has eluded charges of culpable homicide in Bhopal for over 20 years.
TVA Coal Sludge Spill
America’s worst man-made environmental disaster occurred on December 22nd, 2008 at the Kingston Tennessee Valley Authority power plant as 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic coal sludge burst over a dam wall, invading the Emory River and 400 acres of nearby homes and farmland.
Coal ash, a waste product, contains arsenic and potentially carcinogenic heavy metals, yet is not regulated by the EPA. That was supposed to change within a year of the spill, but the agency has delayed action. Meanwhile, experts say the spill could have severe lasting health effects for area residents.
TVA estimated that it would have all 2.4 million cubic yards out of the area by 2013, but announced in March 2010 that a complete cleanup is “technologically impossible.”
Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster
Nobody knows exactly how many people died as a result of the catastrophic nuclear meltdown at the Chernobyl Power Plant in Ukraine on April 26th, 1986. Officials count 56 direct fatalities and 4,000 cancer deaths, but these estimates are likely on the low side. 1,100 buses evacuated area residents the day the accident occurred, but they had already been exposed to radiation that was high enough to set off alarms in Sweden.
Today, the adjacent city of Pripyat is a disturbing ghost town full of rusting metal, peeling paint and evidence of lives seemingly abandoned in mid-step. Gas masks and baby dolls litter the hallways of a school, clothes still flutter in the wind on a clothesline at an apartment complex. The displaced survivors may be going on with their lives in other cities, but they’re often doing so with brain tumors, debilitating headaches and birth defects.
People are officially forbidden to live within the 17-mile “Exclusion Zone” around Chernobyl, and radiation levels in the area are still 10-100 times higher than normal “background levels” but several million people continue to live on contaminated land.
Images: coal-ash-spill.com, google sightseeing, Three Mile Island via wikimedia commons, Chisso Factory Effluent via wikimedia commons, Exxon Spill via wikimedia commons, Dow Chemical Banner via wikimedia commons and View of Chernobyl via wikimedia commons