It is an unfortunate fact that mankind has caused a huge number of environmental disasters, both large and small. It is telling that many of these disasters are linked to the energy industry, in particular oil and gas. This article deals with individual sites or accidents, not on-going disasters like climate change and mass extinctions.
Failures in safety systems, training, and basic design led to an explosion in one of the reactors at Chernobyl on April 16th, 1984. This explosion resulted in the release of up to 5% of the reactor’s core into the atmosphere, and a radioactive cloud that spread over large areas of Ukraine, Belarus, and parts of northern Europe. 56 deaths have been directly attributed to this accident, with up to another 4,000 more possible due to cancer and other long-term effects.
On December 3rd, 1984, the Union-Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, released extremely volatile methyl isocyanate gas and other toxins into the air, exposing over 500,000 people to the toxic mixture. The initial death toll was at least 3,700, with some estimates running as high as 15,000. The eventual death toll may reach as high as 35,000, with thousands more suffering permanent health effects, including blindness. Though no official reason for this accident has been found, a mixture of poor safety procedures, poor training, and poor plant design all contributed to this disaster.
Ixtoc 1 Oil Spill
The second worst oil spill of all time, the Ixtoc 1 spill didn’t involve a tanker, but rather an offshore oil well. Pemex, a state-owned Mexican petroleum company was drilling an oil well when a blowout occurred on June 3, 1979. The oil ignited, and the resultant fire caused the drilling rig to collapse. Oil began gushing out of the well into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of 10,000 to 30,000 barrels a day for over nine months before workers were finally able to cap the well and stop the leak.
Kuwait Oil Fires
As Iraqi forces in Kuwait retreated from advancing Coalition forces in 1991, they set fire to over 700 wellheads, and scattered landmines to prevent a close approach to the blazing wells. Over 6 million barrels of oil were lost every day, either burned up or spilled onto the ground, over a period of several months before being capped. The soot and pollution dominated weather patterns over the entire region for the rest of the year, and caused many-long-term health effects. It is rated the worst oil spill of all time.
The Aral Sea
The Aral Sea was once the 4th largest lake in the world. In the 1950s, the Soviet government decided the land around the sea was ideal for growing cotton, and started a series of irrigation projects to support that. Over time, the sea level has dropped by over 60%, and the volume has decreased by 75%, leading to the destruction of the Aral’s marine life, including the 50 species of fish that used to live in it. What were once seashore towns are now 100 km from the water.
In August of 1975, the Banqiao Dam in China burst, sending a wall of water 10 km wide and 5 m high racing downstream. The dam was designed to withstand 1 in a 1,000 year floods, but then was hit with the equivalent of a year’s rainfall in the course of a day (over 1,000 mm of rain over a 24 hour period). The flood burst a further 62 dams downstream, and resulted in the loss of life well into the thousands.
But wait, what about the Exxon Valdez? What about Three Mile Island? The Exxon Valdez spill was the worst in American history, but it pales in comparison with the Ixtoc 1 spill, let alone Kuwait. It was big, and did an incredible amount of damage. But it only comes in as the 35th worst oil spill in history. The two oil spills here, Ixtoc 1 and Kuwait, were substantially larger. And as for Three Mile Island? While it could have been catastrophic, with a partial meltdown, the effects to the environment have been minimal, and there was no loss of life. In fact, though the reactor in question is no longer in operation, the Three Mile Island facility continues to operate to this day.
Mankind has caused an incredible amount of damage to Earth and the biosphere. Let’s hope that we learn from these catastrophes, and work towards a safer, and far greener, tomorrow..