Top 10 Worst Environmental Disasters in the United States

Worst Environmental Disasters in the United States
TVA Coal Ash Spill courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The U.S. is a relatively young country, in terms of world history, but its rapid rise as an industrial superpower has not come without consequences. Sheer ignorance, coupled with poor government oversight and pure-old greed, is often a recipe for disaster. Here are some of worst instances of man-made, large-scale pollution in American history. While it’s hard to qualify “the worst,” the ones with the most far-reaching effects on the environment and human health were prioritized. Not included were intense climate events such as Hurricanes Andrew or Katrina, although there is a growing scientific consensus about climate change amplifying storms.

10. Lead Contamination (Picher, Oklahoma) – Picher was a successful lead and zinc mining town in the 1920’s with a population of over 14,000 people. Now it sits abandoned at the base of giant hills of excavated mining waste. The citizens suffered from lead poisoning from the lead dust that covered the land and town’s groundwater was contaminated with acidic water from the mines. The town is now nearly deserted and is part of the Tar Creek Superfund Site. A documentary film called Tar Creek tells more of the story.

9. Dioxin Contamination (Times Beach, Missouri) – Times Beach had dust problems in the summer, due to it unpaved dirt roads. They hired a private contractor to spray waste oil on its roads in the early 1970s, which was sourced from a facility that manufactured extremely hazardous chemicals, including dioxin, an ingredient in Agent Orange and a known carcinogen. By 1980, health problems and livestock deaths led to an investigation. The town was bought by the government in 1983 and quarantined.

8. TVA Coal Ash Spill (Kingston, TN) – In 2008, a lake of Tennessee Valley Authority’s mining waste burst its banks, sending billions of gallons of coal-burning waste sludge into a nearby valley in Kingston, Tennessee, which contaminated around 300 acres of land with heavy metals and other toxins. The spill devastated aquatic life in the Emory River and elevated levels of arsenic, lead and beryllium are still being detected years after the spill.

7. Three-Mile Island (Harrisburg, PA) – A partial core meltdown occurred on March 29, 1979, at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The accident was due to a cooling system malfunction. Official reports estimate 30,000 curies of krypton-85 gas were released along with 20 curies of iodine-131 gas, but that it had no long-term health affects. The true impact of the event has long been debated.

6. Oklahoma Dust Bowl – The Dust Bowl refers to the topsoil erosion that caused frequent, massive dust storms that signaled the destruction of millions of acres of farmland in Oklahoma and nearby states in the 1930’s. The areas had been intensely farmed and plagued by extensive drought. The impact of the Dust Bowl was harshly compounded by the Great Depression and displaced populations in the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas.

5. Love Canal (Niagara Falls, NY) – Love Canal was a privately-developed neighborhood of Niagara Falls, New York. The area was used by the Hooker corporation to dump 21,000 tons of toxic waste. Hooker then sold Niagara Falls the site of their dump for $1. The city was made aware of the potential hazard, but built schools and homes anyway. The scandal of the sale and extent of the illegal dumping were first investigated in 1976, which revealed extremely high rates of birth defects in the community’s children. Over 800 people were relocated.

4. Nuclear Weapons Testing in Nevada – The United States government conducted extensive testing of nuclear weapons in the deserts of Nevada from 1951-1971 that exposed citizens to radioactive fallout across much of the United States, particularly in Nevada, Arizona and Utah. The National Cancer Institute has a Radiation Exposure Calculator that can help you estimate your total exposure during that time period. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act was passed in 1990.

3. Castle Bravo Nuclear Weapons Test – In 1954, a hydrogen bomb test in the Bikini atoll of the Marshall Islands produced a 15-megaton blast, significantly higher than the expected power of the device. The explosion broadcast radioactive waste and created a plume of fallout sickened the island’s population and the crew of a nearby Japanese fishing boat, eventually killing one person. Radiation from the test spread as far as Australia, India and Europe. The test became an international incident. It was the largest accidental release of radiation in U.S. history.

2. Exxon Valdez Oil Spill – The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred on March 24, 1989, when the the oil tanker Exxon Valdez, struck a reef in Prince William Sound in Alaska, spilling up to 750,000 barrels of oil into the ocean. The oil severely damaged the coastal ecosystem. An extensive clean-up action followed, but because of the rocky coast and oceanic conditions in the sound, much oil still remains. Exxon was also able to evade many of the legal damages awarded against it. The Exxon Valdez spill was the worst ever, in terms of volume spilled, until 2010.

1. Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill – On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig caught fire and exploded, killing 11 workers and severing its connection with the Macondo oil well, which began gushing petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico. The leak continued unimpeded for three months. International oil giant BP, which had leased the well, tried numerous tactics to cap it. They were finally successful in capping the well on July 15 of that year. Estimates of the level of oil released vary greatly and an adequate scale of environmental and financial cost of the spill can only be guessed at, although studies are ongoing and are producing disturbing results. BP was forced to fund a $20 billion federally-managed compensation fund for victims of the spill.