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Ten Worst Man-Made Environmental Disasters in American History

Updated on August 23, 2017

These disasters altered the national psyche regarding ecological concerns

Man-made disasters will always be with us, and the United States has certainly had its share. Many resulted in no injuries or death, though others certainly did, their death tolls considerable or even impossible to calculate.

Please note that acts of war or terrorism do not quality for this list. And, though some of these disasters didn’t injure or kill people, they had a profound effect on the minds of many people regarding environmental issues.

At any rate, learning about disasters, man-made or otherwise can be fascinating and educational. So if you’re interested in such events, please check out this list!

10. Three-Mile Island Nuclear Accident

In March 1979, one of three nuclear reactors at the Three-Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania nearly melted down, a catastrophe which could have vented massive amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere. The trouble started when a valve stuck open, allowing large amounts of nuclear reactor coolant to escape, which raised the temperature of the nuclear reactor. Some human error added to the trouble, but very little radioactivity was leaked or vented into the environment. Nobody got sick – nobody died.

Nevertheless, the nuclear power industry in the U.S. took a big hit in the public relations department, a downturn from which it has never recovered. Since the Three Mile Island disaster, few nuclear power plants have been built in the U.S. and some of those operating have been removed. Moreover, since the nuclear emergencies at the Chernobyl Meltdown in 1986 and at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in March 2011, nuclear power around the world is now seen as a potentially dangerous means of generating power. Concerns about nuclear proliferation and terrorism have increased the controversy as well.

9. Middle West Dust Bowl (Dirty Thirties)

Times were hard during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and they got much worse for people living in the Middle West, when vast dust clouds roiled over thousands of the square miles of the U.S., at times reaching as far east as New York City. The cause was drought and soil erosion on a massive scale in the Great Plains of the U.S. and Canada. Farmers, some of whom knowing little or nothing about the ecology of the Plains, used tractors to till deeply into the prairie grass, exposing the moist earth to wind and sun, a farming technique which led to disaster. The topsoil simply blew away, leaving nothing fertile to grow crops.

This resultant Dust Bowl, as it became labeled, affected over one million acres of land. When thousands of people in places such as Oklahoma and Texas could no longer grow food, they moved west to states such as California, a story as dramatized in such novels as John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men.

Mississippi Delta
Mississippi Delta
Algal bloom
Algal bloom

8. Mississippi Delta Dead Zone

Since the bad old days of the Dust Bowl, farmers in the Middle West have learned how to effectively till the soil without causing vast dust clouds, but now another problem has presented itself: Eutrophication. The chemical fertilizers many farmers now use pump vast amounts of nitrogen and phosphates into rivers such as the Mississippi, creating hypoxic areas known as dead zones. Algae proliferate in such areas, killing fish and other aquatic life. In the Mississippi Delta region of the Gulf of Mexico, this monstrous, suffocating discharge of chemicals and the resultant algal blooms covers some six to eight thousand square miles (the size of some states in the eastern U.S).

Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency have hoped to reduce the size of this dead zone to about 2,000 square miles, but this hasn’t happened. The use of chemical fertilizers to produce corn and soy beans is the biggest problem in this regard, so unless American farmers grow considerably less and/or convert to organic farming, the Mississippi Delta Dead Zone will probably get larger in the coming years and decades.

7. Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

In March 1989, the Exxon Valdez, a massive oil tanker, collided with a reef in Prince William Sound, a pristine inlet in the Alaskan wilderness. The wreck dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean, a spill covering over 11,000 square miles of ocean and 1,300 miles of coastline. At the time, it was the largest oil spill in the history of the U.S. But detractors such as the Sierra Club and Greenpeace have said that the estimated spill was much worse – 25 to 32 million gallons. Reportedly a drunken captain caused the disaster, but he turned out to be a scapegoat. The real cause was that the ship’s radar system hadn’t been properly maintained and wasn’t even activated during the time of the wreck.

Since the spill happened in a remote area – no roads led to this faraway place – cleanup was a nightmare upon a nightmare. Much of the solvents and dispersants used in the cleanup turned out to be toxic and mechanically cleaning up the spilled oil was never a practical solution in such a fragile, marine environment. Countless thousands of wild animals died in the spill and the seafood industry in the region collapsed. Moreover, estimates suggest that only about 10 per cent of the oil was ever recovered, and to this day much oil remains in the environment of Prince William Sound.

Indian kids "play" with contamination
Indian kids "play" with contamination

6. Ringwood Mines Landfill Site

The Ringwood Mines Landfill Site is a 500-acre area located in Ringwood, New Jersey. Owned by the Ford Motor Plant, in the late 1960s to early 1970s, the site was used for waste disposal for its nearby Mahwah, New Jersey automobile assembly plant. This waste was mostly paint sludge, a toxic mix of various industrial chemicals and heavy metals, which polluted the environment to the point that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the area a Superfund site in need of remediation, which began in 1984. By 2011, over 47,000 tons of contaminated earth has been removed from the site.

Compounding the problem, many people still reside in this woodsy rural area, namely the Ramapough Mountain Indians, a tribe of about 5,000 folks. These people claim that the toxic waste in the area has sickened and killed them, but proving scientific cause and effect in the legal arena has been difficult. An HBO production titled Mann V. Ford chronicles the plight of the Ramapough people, who claim they have seen scores of their people die from cancer. According to the documentary, the plaintiffs eventually settled out of court with the Ford Motor Company, but for only thousands of dollars per plaintiff.

Lead contaminated water
Lead contaminated water

5. Picher Lead Contamination

Since 1913, Picher, Oklahoma was one of the biggest mining towns in the country. Lead and zinc were mined there, 20 billion dollars worth from 1917 to 1947. Thousands of people worked in the mines and support services, so times were good for lots of folks. But all the while, toxic waste piled up in Picher and the waterways in the area turned reddish brown. In 1996, investigators discovered that 34 per cent of the children in Picher had lead poisoning, mainly because lead had contaminated the ground water. Eventually Picher and other nearby communities became part of the Tar Creek Superfund site.

Since, many buildings and homes in the town had become seriously undermined by decades of digging, Picher became a very dangerous and unhealthy place to live. In 2009, the state of Oklahoma dis-incorporated the town of Picher and, with the help of federal money, people began moving away. Now Picher is a ghost town and considered one of the most toxic places in the U.S.

Love Canal today
Love Canal today

4. Love Canal

The story of Love Canal has become an iconic tale of the people vs. corporate interests. In the early decades of the 1900s, the Hooker Chemical Company (now Occidental Petroleum) buried 21,000 tons of toxic waste in the Love Canal section of Niagara Falls, New York. (Love Canal had once been the site of a canal excavation project to connect the city to the Niagara River.) In 1953, Hooker sold the land to the city of Niagara Falls for $1 – telling the city about the presence of toxic waste - and then housing and a school were eventually built on the site.

Then, in the 1970s, people in the Love Canal area began reporting health problems and then various scientific investigations began. Among other toxic substances, dioxin and benzene were found in parts per billion (part per trillion are considered dangerous for dioxin.) By 1978, the story of Love Canal had become a national media event. At one point, President Carter declared Love Canal a disaster site and federal money was given to the residents to help them relocate. In 1995, the EPA sued Occidental Petroleum and forced the company to pay $129 million to help pay for the cleanup of the site. Curiously, some people still live in the Love Canal area.

3. Libby Asbestos Contamination

Beginning in the 1920s, a mine in Libby, Montana produced most of the world’s supply of vermiculite, a mineral used to make insulation in homes and businesses. Vermiculite in its impure form may contain asbestos, a known carcinogen. In 1990, the federal government investigated the mine and the W.R. Grace Company, which owns it, eventually closed the operation. Various sources, such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, have claimed that the asbestos at the mining site has given numerous people serious health problems and that over 400 people have died from diseases caused by exposure to the asbestos.

Since then, the EPA has declared the area a Superfund site and spent millions of dollars on cleanup; it also fined the W.R. Grace Company, hoping to reimbursement some of the money. The U.S. government is also considering filing criminal charges, alleging that the W.R. Grace Company did not inform its employees of the dangers of mining vermiculite. The cleanup of this toxic site - perhaps the worst in the history of the U.S – as well as the litigation, potential and otherwise, continues to this day.

2. Deepwater Horizon Oil Gusher

In April 2010, an explosion rocked the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The rig subsequently sank into the Gulf, killing 11 people. No longer sealed at the seafloor, the damaged rig leaked oil into ocean - and it gushed for 87 days, spilling an estimated 210 million gallons of crude oil into the sea. Oil dispersant was used to spread the oil around, but it turned out to be more toxic than the crude oil. The leak was finally tapped, but may still leak some, who knows? This deluge of oil is considered the worst accidental marine oil spill in the history of petroleum exploration.

British Petroleum or BP, the owner of the rig, was found to be criminally responsible for the disaster. It was convicted of many felonies and misdemeanors, and has paid dearly for this environmental catastrophe, as much as $42 billion at last count. Moreover, the injuries and death to sea life was massive and incalculable, and fishing interests in the Gulf were severely damaged. Moreover, much crude oil is still present in the ecosystem of the area and will be for many years.

Sedan crater
Sedan crater

1. Nuclear Weapons Detonations at the Nevada Test Site

After the end of World War Two, the U.S. and the Soviet Union entered a period known as the Cold War, a time when both sides tested numerous nuclear devices – both below ground and above. At first, the U.S. exploded its bombs in the South Pacific, and then in January 1951 they began nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site in southern Nevada. At times, the mushroom clouds from these detonations could be seen in the city of Las Vegas, only 65 miles from the site. Moreover, parts of Nevada, Arizona and Utah had radioactive fallout sprinkled upon its residents for years during the atmospheric tests.

But the town of St. George in Utah may have gotten the worst of the fallout, because it was downwind of the test site. In fact, a John Wayne movie, The Conqueror, was filmed around St. George when a bomb nicknamed “Dirty Harry” was exploded, and afterwards the film's cast and crew experienced an unusually high rate of cancer.

Furthermore, deaths from various forms of cancer increased in the test site area from the middle 1950s into the 1980s. After testing at the site ended in 1992, the Department of Energy estimated that 300 megacuries of radioactivity remain at the site, making it the most radioactive place in the U.S. Nevertheless, public tours are allowed here, though you have to wonder why anybody would want to visit such a terrible place.

Please leave a comment.

© 2014 Kelley


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    • Kosmo profile image

      Kelley 3 years ago from California

      Thanks for the comment, Genna East. Yeah, ya know, the U.S. government should have known about the dangers of testing those monstrous bombs in the atmosphere, thereby exposing many folks to nuclear fallout. The nerve of some people! They should have warned us, if nothing else. Later!

    • Kosmo profile image

      Kelley 3 years ago from California

      Thanks for the comment, AliciaC. I've always had great concern for the environmental issue of the U.S., so I write about it with great passion. Later!

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 3 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      This article is a must-read for everyone. I confess that I wasn’t aware of the last incident (1.) you wrote about – the nuclear testing in Nevada. “After testing at the site ended in 1992, the Department of Energy estimated that 300 megacuries of radioactivity remain at the site, making it the most radioactive place in the U.S.” This is really frightening. Sometimes I ask myself, “Who the h _ _ _ do we think we are?” Act now, think later. Voted up ++.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Although the events that you describe are tragic, your hub is very interesting and very informative. I learned a lot by reading it. Thanks for sharing all the information.