Just the latest in a legacy of spills
February 1, 2012
It's interesting that the nightly news is so closely focused on the marine sanctuary that could be affected by the capsized Costa Concordia. While the process for pumping unused fuel out of the ship's hold is complex and the entire vessel must be scrapped, it's a closely-controlled situation that is unlikely to adversely affect a large population. And it's a potential environmental accident that we're well aware of, unlike accidents that happen in closed countries like China.
Cadmium is a toxic metal used in batteries. We use a lot of batteries these days in phones, watches and toys – and just think about the future demand as electric vehicles gain popularity. China, where a lot of those devices are manufactured, just had a cadmium spill in a river, 20 tons of the toxin polluting the drinking water source for a city of over 3.5 million. Unfortunately, it's not their first major spill of cadmium in a river.
It remains to be seen if this environmental spill will make the top 10 list. It takes a lot of collateral damage, deaths and disabilities, to make the top 10 list. And it can take years for the full effects of environmental disasters to be evaluated and understood.
According to this source, the Union Carbide release of toxic gases in Bhopal, India in 1984 ranks at the top of the list, with 4,000 killed instantly and up to 500,000 affected over time. The plant where the gases were released in a series of missteps and malfunctions, manufactured pesticides. The Chernobyl nuclear meltdown ranks below that disaster, even though a 1,000-square mile area was evacuated and the fallout affected more people than the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
And Chernobyl is the one we know about. There's an entire region in Russia's Ural mountains that lives with the legacy of decades of nuclear accidents and spills, most of which were kept secret by the Kremlin. There, 450,000 people were affected by toxic clouds and contaminated water over their lifetimes.
While Russia's response to Chernobyl was to abandon entire towns, Japan is trying to clean up the fallout from the recent Fukushima triple meltdown, stripping radiation-contaminated soil and material in a 1,000-square-kilometer area, which means disposing of up to 30 million cubic meters of soil.
Speaking of nuclear disasters, our own Three Mile Island makes several lists of top 10 environmental disasters, although few, if any, deaths are directly linked to the release of radiation in that case.
Oil spills, which get their own category on this list, usually kill more marine life than humans. While we're familiar with the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska and the recent Deepwater Horizon spill that gushed 5,000 barrels a day into the Gulf of Mexico, but there have been many, many others. To date, the most serious spill was in 1991 when retreating Iraqi troops opened the valves in an oil field in Kuwait, creating a spill that stretched 100-by-40-miles at a depth of 5 inches.
Mining is a major source of environmental contamination worldwide, with spills in Romania and Hungary spreading toxins through rivers and watersheds. Closer to home, Picher Oklahoma is a town abandoned after lead was found to contaminate the area. And a flood of 300 million gallons of contaminated mining sludge that broke loose in Kentucky in 2000 was allegedly covered up by the Bush administration, making disclosure an issue here as well as in China.