America’s Top 10 Worst Man Made Environmental Disasters

Every year on Earth Day, we all pat ourselves on the backs for such small, basic acts as planting a tree or turning off the tap while brushing our teeth. But it’s important to remember the destruction we can cause every other day of the year.
Humans have turned screwing up the earth into an art form, skillfully wreaking havoc on the land, water and air through negligence, lack of concern or even the greedy desire to profit at all costs. American corporations are especially adept at causing severe damage to the environment and human health, and some of the worst offenders – including Exxon Mobil, Monsanto and W.R. Grace – have, by and large, gotten away with it.
From knowingly dumping toxic chemicals into a stream where children play to willfully ignoring the potentially devastating weaknesses of their own facilities, men have managed to create destruction on earth that rivals the wrath of Mother Nature herself. Here are America’s top 10 worst environmental disasters caused by people.

10. Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone
Image credit: NOAA via Science Daily
American farmers love their chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and apply them liberally to their crops. Unfortunately, these chemicals – along with nitrogen-rich livestock waste – seeps from farmlands along the Mississippi River into the water and eventually, down into the Gulf of Mexico, where they have led to an oxygen-starved “dead zone” the size of New Jersey. Ocean dead zones cannot support sea life.
Nitrogen in the chemicals and animal waste spur the growth of algae, which is eaten by zooplankton. Those microscopic creatures then excrete pellets that sink to the bottom of the ocean and decay, a process that depletes the water of oxygen.
Researchers set out last July to study the dead zone, taking water samples and measuring the total affected area. Some water samples showed no oxygen at all, and smelled of hydrogen sulfide, a rotten egg smell that indicates organic sediments on the sea floor.
The dead zone has grown steadily over the past few decades. Though it tends to disappear in October once cold weather sets in, there’s a “legacy” left behind due to the fact that not all organic matter on the bottom decays in any given year. This means that even if the same amount of nitrogen is released into the Gulf year after year, the dead zone will get larger.
A recent study identified many of the sources of the nitrogen runoff along the Mississippi River, and the government plans to help states focus their pollution-reduction efforts to prevent some of the runoff from ending up in the river.
9. Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Image credit: Wikipedia
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific Ocean Trash Gyre, Eastern Garbage Patch or Pacific Trash Vortex, is a huge swirling mess of plastic in the North Central Pacific Ocean estimated by some to be the size of the United States. In fact, it’s even been referred to as the world’s largest garbage dump. The Algalita Marine Research Foundation found in 2008 that plastic outnumbers plankton in some areas of the patch by 48 to 1. Algalita’s education advisor Anna Cummins described the pollution just under the surface of the water as ‘plastic soup’.
It formed gradually over time as a result of marine pollution, gathered together in one area by oceanic currents, and may contain over 100 million tons of debris. Charles Moore, a California-based sea captain and ocean researcher who came upon the patch after competing in a sailing race, estimates that 80% of the garbage comes from land-based sources, with the other 20% coming from ships.
Much of the plastic in this patch and elsewhere in the ocean end up in the digestive systems of sea creatures including turtles, jellyfish, marine birds and other sea life.
8. West Virginia/Kentucky Coal Sludge Spill
Image credit: AppVoices
Did George W. Bush cover up a major environmental disaster during his presidency? In October of 2000, 300 million gallons of mercury- and arsenic-laced coal slurry flooded land, polluted rivers and destroyed property in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. The slurry had been contained in a huge reservoir by the Massey Energy Company, killing everything in the streams all the way up the Ohio River.
Jack Spadaro, head of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy (MSHA), a branch of the Department of Labor, initiated an investigation – but it was cut short when the Bush Administration, which had decided that the country needed more energy and less regulation of energy companies, took office. Spadaro had blown the whistle on his own regulators, saying they hadn’t done their job, and complained to the Labor Department’s inspector general.
In 2004, Spadaro had his office raided by government agents who went through his files, changed the locks on the doors and accused him of abusing his authority. He was demoted – silenced, some say, by the Bush Administration. His replacement, Dave Lauriski, was a former mining industry executive himself, and Massey Energy was off the hook. Spadaro had planned to cite the company for eight violations, but Laurinski cut it down to two and required just $110,000 in fines.
Years later, slurry remains on many of the properties that line the streams – it was never properly cleaned up.
7. Anniston, Alabama PCB Poisoning
Image credit: suleiman_bin_daoud
For nearly 40 years, corporate giant Monsanto routinely dumped toxic waste into West Anniston Creek while producing now-banned industrial coolants called PCBs. They also dumped millions of pounds of PCBs into open-pit landfills – and proceeded to spend decades covering it up even after confirming that fish submerged in the creek turned belly-up within seconds.
Monsanto knew exactly how dangerous PCBs were, but decided not to warn the community – instead, ordering the conclusion of a study done on rats to be changed from “slightly tumorigenic” to “does not appear to be carcinogenic.” The company had enjoyed a four-decade-long monopoly over the PCB market and, as an internal memo revealed, decided that “We can’t afford to lose one dollar of business”. In fact, to this day Monsanto hasn’t apologized or taken responsibility despite the fact that they were forced to pay $700 billion in fines in 2003.
6. Picher, Oklahoma Lead Contamination
Image credit: MSNBC
Picher, Oklahoma is a modern ghost town, all but abandoned after gigantic piles of lead-laced mine waste covered 25,000 acres and poisoned local residents. Acid mine water burned the nearby Tar Creek and turned it red. Sinkholes opened up in the mountains of mining waste, threatening to swallow the children who played there before anyone realized how dangerous it was.
The mines closed in 1970 and the area was declared a Superfund site in 1981, but its inhabitants weren’t ready to leave until 2006 when studies found that most churches, homes and the school were in serious danger of caving in. A federal buyout program allowed most of them to move elsewhere, but a few have chosen to stay behind despite the fact that there’s no water and no police. They can’t bear to let go of their town, which is so intimately tied with their own heritage.
5. Three Mile Island Nuclear Meltdown
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
During the last week of March, 2009, the world marked the 30th anniversary of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, which resulted in the release of up to 13 million curies of radioactive noble gases and remains the most notorious accident in the history of the American nuclear power industry.
The accident, which took place at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania in 1979, was a partial core meltdown caused by failures in the non-nuclear secondary system, followed by a stuck relief valve which allowed large amounts of reactor coolant to escape. Over the months that followed, the public mislead and outright lied to about the extent of the accident and its potential effects on nearby residents’ health.
The federal government did not keep track of the health histories of the region’s residents, and some say that the state of Pennsylvania hid the health impacts of the accident, deleting cancers from the public record and misrepresenting the facts that it could not hide. Anecdotal evidence suggests a far greater toll, however, with large numbers of central Pennsylvanians suffering skin sores and lesions after being exposed to the fallout and many developing visible tumors and breathing problems. While the nuclear industry maintains that “no one died at Three Mile Island”, it has continuously refused to allow an open judicial hearing on the hundreds of cases still pending.
4. Love Canal Toxic Dump
Image credit: ABC News
In the late 1800s, William T. Love envisioned a “model city” built near a canal that would connect the two levels of the Niagara River separated by the Niagara Falls. He barely started digging the canal before being forced to abandon the project due to lack of funds, and by the 1920s, it became a dumping site for the municipality of Niagara Falls. In the 1940s, Hooker Chemical was given permission to dump 21,000 tons of industrial chemicals at the site, covering it up with dirt and vegetation in 1952.
Hooker Chemical sold this land to the local school board for one dollar, and despite the dangers of the chemicals under the soil, a school was built on the dumping site. By 1955, a 25-foot area crumbled and exposed toxic chemical drums, which filled with water during rainstorms, creating huge puddles that the children liked to play in. The walls of the canal were also breached during construction of sewers for nearby low-income and single-family residences. None of these residents knew about the history of the canal, but by the 1970s, health effects became apparent.
Lois Gibbs, a local mother, discovered the truth about the chemical waste when investigating why so many, including her son, had severe health problems. High rates of asthma, miscarriages, mental retardation and other health problems along with reports of strange odors and substances, and a survey conducted by the Love Canal Homeowners Association found that 56% of the children born from 1974-1978 had a birth defect. Gibbs and other residents struggled through a three-year battle to call attention to the problem, finally making it a national media event in 1978. The government finally relocated Love Canal families and held Hooker Chemical liable for the damages through the Superfund act. Hooker, now Occidental Petroleum, was forced to pay $129 million in retribution, and the site was officially declared clean in 2004.
3. Libby, Montana Asbestos Contamination
The W.R. Grace plant in Libby, Montana continually spewed asbestos over the small town for decades, sickening over 1,000 people and killing over 200. “There’s never been a case where so many people were sickened or killed by environmental crime,” says David Uhlmann, who helped lead the federal case against the chemical company.
Plumes of smoke from the factory covered the town in tremolite asbestos, a particularly toxic form linked to a number of illnesses including mesothelioma. The government stated during last year’s court case that W.R. Grace conspired to “knowingly release” the asbestos and said the company tried to hide the dangers from employees and residents. The company, which is now bankrupt after facing over 270,000 asbestos-related lawsuits, was ordered to pay $250 million to clean up Libby on March 14th, 2009. W.R. Grace is also connected to numerous other contamination incidents, including an Acton, Massachusetts Superfund site.
2. Exxon-Valdez Oil Spill
Image credit: National Geographic
By far the most notorious man-made environmental disaster in America’s history, the Exxon-Valdez oil spill of 1989 was devastating to the coast of Alaska when 10.8 million gallons of Prudhoe Bay crude oil was released into the secluded Prince William Sound, eventually covering 11,000 miles of ocean.
The oil tanker Exxon Valdez had been heading from the Valdez oil terminal in Alaska to Long Beach, California on March 23rd, 1989. The ship, which was on autopilot thanks to a couple sleep-deprived pilots, struck Bligh Reef, accidentally releasing about 1/5th of its total haul of oil. Cleanup began in April, and despite thousands of personnel helping over the next two years, it still has not been fully cleaned up 20 years later.  In 2001, a survey found oil at 58% of the 91 sites assessed.
Prince William Sound, which had been a pristine ecosystem for a wild variety of wildlife, was devastated. 250,000 sea birds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 orcas, and billions of salmon and herring eggs were killed immediately after the spill, but the oil continues to take its toll to this day. A 2006 study found that exposure to Exxon Valdez oil is still having a material impact on many shore-dwelling animals. Sea otters have yet to re-inhabit Herring Bay, and their overall numbers in the area have declined.
Exxon Mobil apologized for the spill and was fined $150 million, though $125 million was forgiven by the court in recognition of the company’s cooperation in cleanup efforts. Exxon paid an additional $100 million to the federal and state governments as restitution for damage caused to fish, wildlife and land, and agreed to pay $900 million in ten annual installments to civil claimants.
In 1994, an Anchorage jury found that Exxon acted recklessly and awarded victims of the spill $5 billion in punitive damages – an amount that was soon cut in half by an appeals court. The U.S. Supreme Court further cut the amount to $507.5 million in June 2008, but the plaintiffs still have not seen that money – Exxon is fighting the payout.
1. Tennessee Coal Ash Spill
Just when everybody thought the Exxon Valdez was the worst human-caused environmental disaster in U.S. history, a massive coal waste spill unleashed over a billion gallons of toxic sludge in Kingston, Tennessee. On December 22nd, 2008, a wall holding back 80 acres of sludge from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Fossil Plant gave way, pouring coal sludge – a byproduct of the ash from coal combustion – onto at least 300 acres of surrounding land. 15 homes were destroyed, and many more sit on land that is now contaminated with arsenic, mercury and lead.
TVA and state inspection reports show that the Tennessee Valley Authority knew for the past decade about leaks at the ash retention pond and failed to act. Worse yet, they failed to warn citizens about the dangers. 8 days after the spill occurred, TVA finally shed some light on just how serious the situation really was:
“In just one year, the plant’s byproducts included 45,000 pounds of arsenic, 49,000 pounds of lead, 1.4 million pounds of barium, 91,000 pounds of chromium and 140,000 pounds of manganese. Those metals can cause cancer, liver damage and neurological complications, among other health problems. And the holding pond … contained many decades’ worth of these deposits.”
Still, even as workers protected by HAZMAT suits picked through the sludge, the residents whose homes were affected by the spill were being told by TVA that they were safe. Meanwhile, TVA was arresting activists who were trying to warn citizens of the area about the dangers.
Despite their obvious culpability, the Tennessee Valley Authority is now seeking to have all resulting lawsuits against them dismissed. The utility believes that their own responsibility is to clean up the spill, not to pay damages to those who were affected by it. TVA has bought 71 properties tainted by the spill but rejected 166 more claims.
It will likely be many years before the public knows the full extent of the damage of this coal ash spill, but it has called attention to the lack of coal ash regulation and as a result, the EPA has finally indicated plans to get tougher on coal.

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