Milestones: major events

Fukushima Daiichi, March 11, 2011 — Three nuclear reactors melt down, while explosions and spent fuel fires at the Fukushima power complex on Japan’s east coast combine to create a major disaster for public health, environment and Japan’s economy. The melt-downs were triggered by a complex chain of events, including loss of coolant and an earthquake and tsunami that killed tens of thousands of people. Health impacts from the Fukushima disaster may be more serious than Chernobyl. The disaster ends the 60 year hope that nuclear power could create safe, cheap power worldwide and stave off accelerating climate change.

Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform, Gulf of Mexico, April 20, 2010 — An explosion kills 11 and badly injures 9 more workings on this modern drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, off the Louisana coast. Millions of gallons of oil spill and, driven by wind and tides, devastate fragile coastal environments. The incident is similar to the Piper Alpha disaster in the North sea on July 6, 1988, killing 167 men in a fiery explosion. It is also similar to the Ixtoc 1 spill on June 3, 1979 in the Bay of Campeche, spilling three and a half billion barrels (450,000 metric tons) of oil. Another offshore rig incident was the Ocean Ranger, which sank in heavy seas off the Altantic coast of Canada on 15 February 1982 with a loss of 84 crew members. The dangers and costs of recovering oil at extreme depths were highlighted by these incidents.

Coal ash disaster, Tennessee, United States, Dec. 22, 2008 — Over a billion gallons of coal fly ash sludge spills out of a holding dam near Kinsport, TN. The Tennessee Valley Authority tells consumers that conditions are “probably safe,” that they should boil water and that fly ash is similar to gypsum. In reality, the toxic brew contains high levels of carcinogenic compounds and neurotoxins that no amount of boiling will ever remove. The spill is significant as sounding a loud alarm over the long-term health and environmental costs of using coal for electricity.

Exxon Valdez oil spill, Alaska, United States, March 24, 1989 — An Exxon oil tanker runs aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling 11 million gallons. The incident is just one of thousands of oil spills, but it catalyzed public opinion about the environmental dangers of oil. Wikipedia has a list of the largest spills.

Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Ukraine, April 26, 1986 — A safety experiment gone wrong, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded, killing approximately 50 people immediately, an estimated 4,000 people over the short term, and exposing over half a million people to high levels of radiation. The worst nuclear disaster in history also had a destabilizing effect on the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and is seen as one of many causes of its breakup in 1991.

Bhopal disaster, India, Dec. 3, 1984 — Union Carbide Co. fertilizer plant leaks methyl icocyanide in Indian town of Bhopal. 2000 dead, another 8,000 die of chronic effects. The International Medical Commission on Bhopal estimates that upwards of 50,000 people remained partially or totally disabled.

Minimata “disease,” Japan, May 1, 1956 — Dr. Hajime Hosokawa reported an “an unclarified disease of the central nervous system” affecting residents of Kumamoto and Minamata, small towns about 570 miles southwest of Tokyo. Hosokawa soon narrowed the cause of the disease to mercury dumping by the Chisso Corporation, which denied the accusations, continued dumping mercury, and attempted to silence Dr. Hosokawa. In the mid-1970s, the estimate was that 67 people in Minamata had died and another 330 were permanently disabled from the mercury poisoning. The long – term impacts of the disaster included a new worldwide awareness of the severe health impacts that unregulated chemical pollution could cause.

Leaded gasoline, Oct. 29, 1924 — The public first learns of strange violent insanity and death at refineries owned by Standard Oil (Exxon) and DuPont refineries in New Jersey making tetraethyl lead gasoline additive. Public health expert Alice Hamilton of Harvard University says inventor and Ethyl Corp. head Charles Kettering is “nothing but a murderer.” Due to the power of the oil and automotive industries backing leaded gasoline, the octane-boosting additive is used in most gasoline worldwide during the 20th century. It takes until 1986 to ban it in the US and 2000 to ban it in Europe and the rest of the world.