Idiots Guide: Corporate Mayhem – Worst Environmental Disasters in History

One of the more sinister, if not simply morose world community facts, is that we have no problem putting individual criminals in prison for crimes against society, yet corporations, especially multi-national corporations, are rarely held to the same standard(s) of criminal liability. Time and again our environmental health is victimized and those corporations responsible are rarely, if ever, held to criminal account. The irony being that if it is to be asserted that ‘corporations are people’ then by extension, these people have been getting away with murder and mayhem around the globe, with minimal punitive punishment, for decades. In the rare instance of criminal prosecution, the penalty almost never fits the crime, as in closer to a slap on the wrist than life in prison. In most cases corporations are penalized and/or sued for monetary damages, the thing that hurts them the absolute least. That injustice notwithstanding, the profound injury to our natural world is longstanding, and in many cases, basically irreversible. You don’t have to be a ‘tree hugger’ to understand the problem with the destruction of our natural environment, one major ‘accident’ at a time. Industrial, and technological advancements have been wonderful for humanity over the decades, however it comes with a fairly steep price tag. Our predilection towards unsustainable consumption is the 800 pound gorilla in the room whose existence is something that far too many people try and ignore. It’s like pretending the sun doesn’t exist even after receiving a bad sunburn. In any event, Idiots Guide has compiled a list of 10 of the worst environmental disasters in history. Environmental ‘accident’ scenes that are littered with the dubious existence of corporate fingerprints and various other clues related to crime scene evidence.

#10.   Centralia Mine Fire / Pennsylvania, U.S.A.  /  Started: 1962 

Centralia Fire

Centralia, Pennsylvania is a quintessential small town slice of main street America. In fact, the only difference between this town and all of the others just like it, is the dubious fact that it’s been on fire…since 1962. In honesty, I had zero idea that a fire could burn continually for 54 years straight. That’s how long the Centralia coal mine fire has been burning underneath the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. Starting circa May 1962, The fire is believed to have been set intentionally from the burning of trash inside of an abandoned  ‘Anthracite’ strip coal mine. The fire is burning 300 feet deep underground, and over the length of 8 miles of inaccessible tunnel. This is a major problem. All efforts to extinguish the fire have failed. It’s basically too dangerous to successfully extinguish. As it turns out Anthracite is no joke, it burns hot and long while continually releasing toxic substances that include benzene, hydrogen sulfide, mercury, and arsenic, as well as flammable methane and poisonous carbon dioxide. Needless to say the town has since been ordered evacuated, and it’s citizens forced to relocate, especially since in 2002 the Post Office removed the town from it’s map, and revoked Centralia’s ZIP code, this in addition to the potential for death. In 1984, Congress released $42 million in buyout relocation funds for the citizens of Centralia. Most people took the money as the population went from 2,761 in 1980 to just a very stubborn 7 people as of 2013. Your guess is as good as mine why people would choose to stay there. The good news is that the fire is expected to continue burning for another 250 years. True story. Who is ultimately responsible for this tragic absurdity, you ask? The Lehigh Valley Coal Company. As of 2016, there have been zero criminal charges filed in relation to this abomination.

 

#9.  Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster  /  Russia  /  April 26th 1986

chernobyl-cover

The Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster was a tragically catastrophic accident of the nuclear variety. On the evening of April 26th, 1986 there was a huge explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Not sexy at all. The subsequent fire released extremely  dangerous radioactive gas and particles into the surrounding atmosphere, and continued to spread over hundreds of miles into western Russia (Then USSR) and an unsuspecting European continent. The city of Pripyat was evacuated and closed to human habitation. This ‘accident’ was at the time, the very worst nuclear accident in world history. In fact, it is one of only two ‘Level 7’ nuclear events ever registered on the International Nuclear Event Scale.The 2nd being the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster of 2011 (We’ll get to that later). It took over a half million brave clean up workers at a cost of over 18 billion rubles ($275 million USD), to get this thing somewhat under control, and at the very least, not kill the rest of Europe, and the rest of the world at large. The long term effects of cancer and fallout are still being studied, but suffice to say, that it likely won’t turn out to be good. Who is responsible for this shit show? The now defunct Soviet Union (USSR). A very special thanks to former Soviet President Gorbachev. Nice job…not really.

#8. Three Mile Island Nuclear Disaster  / Pennsylvania / March 28, 1979  

Three Mile Island

The Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania was not the place to be on the evening of March 28th 1979. This unfortunate accident began with punitive mechanical and human failures in the non-nuclear secondary system in reactor #2, in addition to an open pilot-operated relief valve. The bottom line is that large amounts of nuclear reactor coolant escaped into the atmosphere. At the time, it was the most serious accident in a commercial nuclear power plant in U.S. history. It was serious enough to be rated a 5 on a 7-point ‘International Nuclear Event Scale’. In addition to the mechanical failures, the plant operators failed to recognize the seriousness of the situation apparently due to inadequate training. Sweet. The meltdown caused a release of radioactive gases and iodine into the environment. As a result several state and federal agencies launched investigations that resulted in strong criticisms of Babcock & Wilcox, Met Ed, GPU, and the NRC. Apparently there were serious internal lapses in quality care, maintenance, and operator training, plus a notable lack of communication. If it sounds unacceptable for a nuclear power plant facility, then you’d be right, it certainly is. The extensive cleanup process started in August of 1979 and was completed in December of 1993, costing a total of approximately $1 billion. Not good. However, at the end of the day, and even in the face of poor management, and institutional complacency, nobody was charged, indicted, sent to their room, time out, nothing.

#7. Aral Sea Disappearance / Kazakhstan/Uzbekistan / Disappeared in 2009

The Aral Sea

Throughout geologic time the drying up of river beds and even small lakes is fairly commonplace. What makes the Aral Sea, a freshwater ecosystem the approximate size of Ireland (located in the Kyzylkum Desert region of Central Asia) situation unique and somewhat sinister, is the speed of it’s disappearance. At one time the Aral Sea was the fourth largest inland sea…in the world. It was a substantial salt-water sea basin that covered some 26,000 square miles. Until NASA satellites started charting it’s extraordinary shrinkage and/or evaporation. From 2000 until around 2014 this once thriving sea, simply vanished into the surrounding desert. NASA photographs from their ‘Terra Satellite’ as well as satellite images from the European Space Agency  over the decade of shrinkage reveal the graphic, expedient, and thus far unexplainable loss of water mass. By the year 2005, the once massive lake suffered the loss of approximately 80% of its water…in less than three years This in addition to the loss of many of the native fish species, and the fishing dependent work (approximately 60,000 jobs) that went along with it. Left in it’s wake was a dry, naked seabed covered with tons of salt, in the millions, as well as toxic dust that strong winds routinely spread into the villages surrounding the former lake. In fact the contamination was so severe that the surrounding villages were deemed to be ‘disaster zones’, of which it is reported that citizens started to suffer from abnormally increased rates of illness, including cancer, anemia, and respiratory problems. This situation forced tens of thousands of people to leave their homeland. By 2014 the eastern lobe of the Aral Sea had completely dried up, something that had not previously been witnessed in history by modern scientists. So, what caused the 4th largest lake in the world to disappear in just 14 short years?  Ask the Soviet Union. Apparently Soviet engineers built a canal system called the ‘Karakum Canal’, which helped to divert the flow of river water into the Aral Sea. It instantly became the largest water supply canal in the world. The problem is that the water inflow to the Aral Sea dropped by 90%. Thus essentially making it a vast swimming pool in the middle of a desert. Not surprisingly, the Aral Sea lost untold millions of gallons of water volume due to evaporation over the years. So, the technological intervention of Russia is directly linked to the death of the Aral Sea. This is a clear example of man manipulating mother nature, leading to catastrophic results. ‘No Bueno’.

#6. Seveso Disaster  / Lombardy, Italy / July 10, 1976 

Seveso Dioxin Cloud

On the afternoon of July 10th 1976, there was a serious industrial accident that occurred in a chemical manufacturing plant approximately 12 miles north of Milan, Italy in the Lombardy region. A malfunctioning reactor relief valve opened up, causing the aerial release of approximately 6 tons of toxic chemicals, which settled over 7 miles of the surrounding area. In this case the town of Seveso, Italy ( pop. 17,000). Where the citizens and local population were advised not to eat, or even touch the locally grown fruits or vegetables, indefinitely. I am fairly certain that this was an inconvenience to say the very least. This accident resulted in the highest known toxic industrial material exposure of ‘Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin’, or (TCDD) to the surrounding population, in history. As a result, approximately 3,300 animals (mostly poultry and rabbits) were found dead. Mandatory emergency slaughtering of herbivore animals was ordered to prevent TCDD from entering the food chain. In total over 80,000 animals had been slaughtered, by 1978. Pregnant women in the area were advised to consider terminating their pregnancies (26 actually did this). This accident was so severe that the subsequent EU industrial safety regulations have been named the ‘Seveso II Directive’. The corporation which owned the plant and was ultimately responsible was ‘ICMESA’, or ‘Industrie Chimiche Meda Società Azionaria’, which was a subsidiary of ‘Givaudan’, as well as the ‘Hoffmann-La Roche Group’. None of the big corporate dogs were prosecuted, however in June of 1980, Paolo Paoletti, the Director of Production for ICMESA , was murdered in a shooting by a member of the Italian terrorist organization Prima Linea. Talk about vigilante justice. In December of 1980 representatives of the Region of Lombardy/Italian Republic and Givaudan/ICMESA signed a compensation agreement for victims in the amount of 20 billion Italian lire.

#5.  Love Canal Disaster  /  Niagara Falls, New York  Late 1970s

Love Canal

Love Canal is a quaint Niagara Falls, New York neighborhood. It was also the site of a Superfund disaster that adversely affected the health of hundreds, if not thousands of its residents. This planned ‘dream community’, became national news in 1976, when two reporters for the Niagara Falls Gazette, David Pollak and David Russell, tested several sump pumps near Love Canal and found toxic chemicals in them. By early 1978, the Love Canal disaster became national news, provoking many news articles that referred to the planned neighborhood as “a public health time bomb”, and “one of the most appalling environmental tragedies in American history”. Not good, at all. Ultimately, this was a result of the illegal disposal of 22,000 barrels of toxic waste. On August 2nd of 1978,  the toxic dumpsite was declared a ‘state emergency’, and President Jimmy Carter ordered the release of disaster funds. The health implications for the local population was appalling. Hundreds of  families were forced to move away from their ‘dream’ homes, now that they had been throughly contaminated with toxic chemicals and  waste. Health issues included problems with abnormally high red blood cell counts and the pre-condition symptoms of leukemia. Sweet deal. In the intervening years, the entire neighborhood was demolished and the Superfund cleanup lasted for decades, up until  2004. Popular considerations refer to The Love Canal incident as a “National symbol of a failure to exercise a sense of (environmental) concern for future generations”. What heads rolled behind this, you ask? None criminally, however,  in 1994, Federal District Judge John Curtin ruled Hooker/Occidental to have been negligent, though not reckless, in its handling of the waste. Really? In any event, Occidental Petroleum was sued by the EPA and in 1995 and agreed to pay $129 million in damage restitution. The lawsuits filed by the residents were all settled privately.

#4. Bhopal Disaster   Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh / December 3rd 1984

Bhopal

Also known as the ‘Bhopal gas tragedy’,  The ‘Bhopal disaster’, was a serious industrial gas leak incident that occurred in Bhopal, India on the night of December 2nd 1984. At the time it was considered the world’s most severe industrial disaster, ever. The genesis of the leak/disaster was at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant.  An accident that caused the toxic exposure of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas, and other toxic chemicals to well over 500,000 people. The toxic gases meandered through the surrounding shanty towns which were located near the plant. The exact death toll estimates have never been fully observed. Although the ‘official’ death toll for those immediately killed, was approximately 2,259 souls. Later in 2006, Madhya Pradesh government released a confirmed total of 3,787 deaths related to the gas leak accident, with an additional 558,125 injuries, including 38,478 partial injuries and approximately 3,900 severe to permanently disabling injuries. There are unsubstantiated reports of over 8,000 deaths within the initial two weeks, with an additional 8,000 or more having died since. So who went to jail, you ask? That would be difficult to answer since the exact cause of the disaster remains unclear and debated to this day. Environmental activists, and members of the Indian government claim that inefficient management and poorly kept maintenance records and activity, created the environment for what should have been routine pipe maintenance to turn into a back flow into the MIC tank that triggered the disaster. For it’s defense, Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) claims that the accident was an act of industrial sabotage. However, this claim has never been proven.

#3.  Exxon Valdez Oil Spill  / Prince William Sound, Alaska /   March 24 1989

The Exxon Valdez

On Good Friday March 24th of 1989, an oil tanker named Exxon Valdez heading for Long Beach, California, ran into the Bligh Reef on Prince William Sound. The crash caused a huge spill of between 11 and 38 million gallons of black crude oil. At the time, it was considered the most serious human error environmental disaster. It was largest oil spill in U.S. waters up until the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. Making the already horrible problem even worse was the remote location of Prince William Sound which was only accessible only by plane,boat, or helicopter. This seriously hampered clean-up response efforts, and as a result marine life suffered greatly as the spill ranged 1,300 miles of Alaskan coastline, and approximately 11,000 square miles of ocean. Who is responsible? Captain Joseph Hazelwood was allegedly inebriated, and not at the ship controls when the collision occurred. In fact, he was asleep. Nice job Joe. His employer Exxon was sued and initially ordered to pay $287 million, plus an additional $5 billion in punitive damages. However on appeal the punitive damage amount was reduced to $2.5 billion in December of 2006. As for Captain Joseph Hazelwood, he was fired by Exxon and offered a personal ‘heartfelt apology’ to the people of Alaska. It is unclear of he apologized to the salmon, sea otters, seals, and numerous seabirds that he either killed, or ruined their lives.

#2. Fukushima Nuclear Disaster  /  Fukushima, Japan  / March 11th 2011 

Fukishima Nuclear Plant

Immediately following the Tōhoku earthquake on March 11th, the subsequent tsunami caused a severe nuclear energy accident at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant in Fukushima, Japan. The ill-fated tsunami basically destroyed the plant’s emergency generators responsible for the essential cooling of the nuclear reactors. This caused the fuel rods on ‘Reactor #4’ to overheat. Not sexy at all. The damage due to insufficient cooling, also led to three additional nuclear meltdowns, and the immediate release of radioactive material into the atmosphere. It doesn’t really get any worse than that, does it? In addition, there were several chemical explosions that occurred between March 12th and March 15th. More bad news. The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Investigation Commission (NAIIC) declared that the direct causes of the accident could have been avoided , and laid the blame at the feet of the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). The investigation claimed that ‘TEPCO’ had failed in their obligation to meet basic safety requirements. Risk assessment in particular. It also found that the preparation for containing damage, and evacuation plans, were sorely lacking. This accident was truly the result of a natural disaster, however, it is clear that TEPCO wasn’t prepared the way it should have been prepared for this kind of eventuality. The Fukushima disaster became the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986. It’s also the second nuclear disaster to receive a Level 7 event classification, on the International Nuclear Event Scale. Ironically, there have been no officially sited fatalities due to this accident, however the radiation effects are expected to  notably reduce the life expectancy of tens of thousands of people in the surrounding areas at the very least, and irreparable environmental damage at the worst.

#1. Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill / Gulf of Mexico / April 20th 2010

Deep Water Horizon

The result of the April 20th 2010 blowout explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig/deck in the Gulf of Mexico was the beginning of a terrible 87 day environmental horror show, emanating from an awful sea floor oil gusher. The ill-fated explosion resulted in the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. Tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico until it finally capped on July 15th 2010. In total, 11 oil workers went missing, and presumably lost their lives. Then in April 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder and his Justice Department filed criminal charges against BP engineer, Kurt Mix, charges including obstructing justice. Apparently Mix, deleted text/email messages that illustrated BP’s knowledge of the understated flow rate, as it was later determined to be three times higher than initially reported. In total, 3 additional BP employees were criminally charged in November of 2012, including site managers Donald Vidrine and Robert Kaluza. They were also charged with manslaughter for negligence in their safety supervision protocols and the deaths of 11 rig workers. These managers were also dinged for their failure with regards to onshore alerting of engineers of potential and actual problems during drilling operations. In addition, BP’s vice-president David Rainey was criminally charged with the obstruction of the Congressional inquiry. Several BP employees were charged with obstruction of justice  for misleading and/or lying to federal investigators. At the end of the day BP and it’s indicted employees agreed to plead guilty to 11 criminal felony counts with regards to the unfortunate deaths of the 11 oil rig workers. BP was forced to pay a substantial fine upwards of $4 billion. Co-defendent Transocean was also ordered to pay  $1.4 billion, in addition to pleading guilty to various misdemeanor charges. Sadly, the Gulf of Mexico and it’s native wildlife species never saw a dime of that money.