10 Environmental Disasters to Remember on Earth Day
April 21, 2009
Ten tragic lessons in our nation’s environmental history that should never be forgotten. And one climate destabilization tragedy in the making that needs our urgent help.
1. Extinction: Three Species Per Hour
According to a United Nations report released in 2007, our planet is at risk of losing three species per hour. Ahmed Djoghlaf, the head of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, declared: “We are indeed experiencing the greatest wave of extinctions since the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Extinction rates are rising by a factor of up to 1,000 above natural rates. Every hour, three species disappear. Every day, up to 150 species are lost. Every year, between 18,000 and 55,000 species become extinct.”
For John J. Audubon, the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, the great American wild pigeon, would have ranked high: “The multitudes of Wild Pigeons in our woods are astonishing,” Audubon wrote. “Indeed, after having viewed them so often, and under so many circumstances, I even now feel inclined to pause, and assure myself that what I am going to relate is fact. Yet I have seen it all, and that too in the company of persons who, like myself, were struck with amazement.” A victim of hunting and industrial abuses, the last Passenger Pigeon died in an Ohio zoo in 1914.
2. Everything in Its Path: Mountaintop Removal
Imagine a quarter-mile strip of land stretching from Washington, DC until San Francisco: An estimated 800-1000 square miles of mountains and valleys have been eliminated from the American landscape since the launch of mountaintop removal strip mining operations in central Appalachia in 1970. Using explosives and heavy machinery, over 500 mountains in the oldest and one of the most diverse ranges on earth, have been clear cut, blown to bits and then toppled into valleys and streams with their waste since President Jimmy Carter signed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977, which shamefully recognized mountaintop removal as an approved mining technique.
Mountaintop removal has not only destroyed the natural heritage; it has ripped out the roots of the Appalachian culture and depopulated the historic mountain communities in the process.
It continues today as one of the most egregious human rights and environmental violations in the nation.
3. Donora Smog: Worst Air Pollution Disaster
With a severe temperature inversion, poisonous gases such as sulfuric acid and nitrogen dioxide were trapped in the stagnant air of the Donora mill town in the Monongahela River Valley in Pennsylvania. Released from various steel works and a zinc plant, whose sulfuric emissions had wiped out most vegetation within a half-mile, 20 people were killed and thousands stricken with respiratory and heart problems by the smog in the fall of 1948.
4. Don’t Call Them Accidents: The TVA Coal Ash, Martin County Coal Slurry and Buffalo Creek Disasters
When the dike broke at the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash pond on December 22, 2008, and over 1.1 billion gallons of toxic sludge eased its way into tributaries and watersheds of the Tennessee River, former MSHA investigator Tony Oppegard had flashbacks to the largely overlooked Martin County, Kentucky coal slurry impoundment that broke on October 11, 2000, and dumped over 306 million gallons of toxic sludge into the tributaries of the Tug Fork River. Both dirty coal incidents and negligent handling wiped out aquatic life and contaminated the drinking water for thousands of residents.
As the worst environmental disasters in the eastern states in modern times, the two incidents didn’t rank as “accidents” to Oppegard, a veteran Kentucky mine safety lawyer and investigator. “A spill implies something benign (“I spilled my milk”), and many folks won’t read past the headline. It also implies that it was “just an accident” –that is, that it wasn’t foreseeable and that gross negligence or criminal conduct didn’t occur, which I certainly would not assume at this point. To the contrary, I assume that there was gross negligence in this case.”
The TVA disaster came as a wakeup call that nearly half the American population (and their watersheds) live within an hour’s drive of a coal ash pond or slurry impoundment. It also reminded the nation that the coal ash pond had yet to be classified or regulated as hazardous waste sites.
Residents in the Buffalo Creek Hollow were not so fortunate. On February 26, 1972, over 132 million gallons of sludge broke past a coal slurry impoundment, flooded 16 townships, and took 125 lives and left thousands of people homeless in Logan County, West Virginia.
5. Love Canal: The Origins of the Superfund
In a quiet neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, over 21,000 tons of toxic waste were buried in the 1940s, covered with dirt and a plot of grass. Twenty-five years later, recognizing the extraordinary rates of birth defects, miscarriages, cancer and nervous disorders in the area — along with the construction of a school near the contaminated site — Love Canal resident Lois Gibbs led a campaign to uncover the environmental disaster. According to one survey, 56% of the children born in the 1970s suffered from some form of a birth defect. An EPA study estimated that one out of three residents in the area had undergone chromosomal damage.
Eventually, 800 families were relocated from the area. Their tragedy led to the passing of the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act, or Superfund Act, which granted federal authorities the funds to clean up contaminated sites and hold polluters accountable.
On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck a reef in the Prince William Sound and poured 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into the sea. Wiping out the marine life in the area, the oil spill eventually stretched over 11,000 square miles.
Twenty years later, the Exxon disaster is not a story of naval impairment and workplace negligence, or an indicator of the toxic levels of oil. As Meg White writes: “Beyond the environmental massacre precipitated by the spill itself, Exxon is guilty of extreme negligence. Alaskan fishing towns such as Cordova and Valdez are shadows of their former selves due to the environmental, economic, and social repercussions of the spill. Despite corporate promises, the communities torn asunder by the disaster were never made whole again. It’s a sad state of affairs when people who have been hurting for two decades are still waiting for the situation they’ve been trapped in to be resolved. That is, in itself, an important reason to go back to this story on its 20th anniversary.”
7. Black Mesa: Removing the Liver of the Earth
The site of one of the largest strip mines in the country since 1966, Black Mesa remains like a scar on our nation’s conscience for the scandalous machinations of Peabody Energy on the Dine/Navajo and Hopi reservations. As part of a 273-mile slurry line, billions of gallons of water were also siphoned from the Navajo aquifer for decades. As the main water source for the native farmers and ranchers in the area, this caused wells and springs to dry up, groundwater levels to plummet and native vegetation to vanish.
As investigative journalist Judith Nies reported in 1998: “Thirty years after the strip mining for coal began, the cities have the energy they were promised, but the Hopi and Navajo nations are not rich-that part of the plan proved ephemeral. Instead, Black Mesa has suffered human rights abuses and ecological devastation; the Hopi water supply is drying up; thousands of archeological sites have been destroyed; and, unbeknownst to most Americans, twelve thousand Navajos have been removed from their lands-the largest removal of Indians in the United States since the 1880s.”
The nightmare of Black Mesa is not over. In an 11th hour ploy, the Bush administration gave the green light for an expansion of strip mining at Black Mesa in December, 2008. “Black Mesa is the female mountain, coal is her liver, water is her lifeblood, and we need to leave it in the ground,” says Marie Gladue Dine from Black Mesa. “Taking coal out of the earth is a dirty business, and it’s time to move toward a clean energy future that respects indigenous communities and our future generations.”
8. Hurricane Katrina: A Failure of Initiative
On August 29th, 2005, Hurricane Katrina, the third major hurricane of the 2005 season, hit the Gulf Coast of the United States. The Category 4 hurricane took over 1,300 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of residents. It devastated marine habitats over 217 square miles of coastline.
Finding that the levees protecting New Orleans were not built for the most severe hurricanes and lacked a warning system for breaches and repairs to the levees, the Bipartisan Congressional Report concluded: “The failure of local, state, and federal governments to respond more effectively to Katrina — which had been predicted in theory for many years, and forecast with startling accuracy for ﬁve days — demonstrates that whatever improvements have been made to our capacity to respond to natural or man-made disasters, four and half years after 9/11, we are still not fully prepared.”
9. The Worst Hard Time: The Making of the Great Dust Bowl
As a combination of over-grazing, over-cultivation, and unwise agricultural practices and abuses that led to massive erosion and destruction of the natural grasslands, extraordinary drought conditions in the 1930s whipped up massive dust storms across 100 million acres of Oklahoma and Texas and parts of the Great Plains.
Author Timothy Egan noted: “There are so many echoes of what happened in the 1930s and Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast in the summer of 2005. For starters, there were ample warnings that a large part of the United States could be rendered uninhabitable if people continued to live as they did – in this case, ripping up all the grass that held the earth in place. In one sense, the prairie grass was like the levees around New Orleans; the grass protected the land against ferocious winds, cycles of drought, and storms. Then after the big dusters hit, you had a massive exodus: more than a quarter million people left their homes and fled. Never before or since had so many Americans been on the move because of a single weather event – until Hurricane Katrina.”
10. Bhopal: How Union Carbide Made the World Flat
It didn’t take place in the United States, but it deserves a spot on any list of American-sponsored environmental disasters: On the night of December 3, 1984, a Union Carbide pesticide plant leak exposed over 500,000 people to toxic methyl isocyanate gases in Bhopal, India. A village awoke to the mayhem of terror and burning lungs; an estimated 8,000 people died, though the numbers have never been confirmed and are assumed to be much greater. Union Carbide had disregarded warnings about potential leaks and improper safety conditions for years.
The native Inupiat villagers in Kivalina and Shishmaref, along a six-mile barrier island between the Chukchi Sea and the Kivalina River on the Northwest Arctic coast, are on the frontlines of climate change. With the sea ice melting, their coastline community has experienced massive erosion and devastation. The villagers have sued ExxonMobil and a host of oil companies, power companies and one coal company for the destruction of their way of life from unchecked CO2 emissions.
It’s been over 90 years since anyone has seen a live Passenger Pigeon but you can still see where the last one died: here.
Long-extinct passenger pigeon finds a place in the family tree: here.