Robert Emmet Hernan

Several generations have been born since many of these environmental disasters occurred, and those generations’ knowledge of the events is limited. Even for those who were around for some of these disasters, the details of what happened are distant memories. While some might recall the immediate impact of the disasters, there has been little exposition of their long-term consequences, including the health effects that continue to plague those who were exposed to the toxic releases.

If we forget how and why these disasters happened and what horrible consequences emerged from them, we will not avert future disasters. Looming on the horizon is the threat of global climate change caused by the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Some continue to deny this threat, as others denied the possibility that oil tankers, chemical and nuclear plants, and landfills could leak. In recent years, however, a clear consensus has developed within the scientific and international policy community that global warming as a result of human action is real, and it is upon us. Like Chernobyl, this threat extends across the entire planet, with potential consequences that range from costly to devastating.

To reduce our dependence on fossil fuels (oil, coal, gas) that contribute substantially to global climate change, many stress the critical need to develop renewable sources of energy (solar, wind, biogas). Others encourage a return to nuclear power. In considering nuclear power as an option, it is critical that we remember and learn from the events at Chernobyl, Windscale, and Three Mile Island, the three environmental disasters that occurred at nuclear power plants.

While my main interest is simply to relate the compelling stories of what happened during these environmental disasters, I also feel it is important to highlight certain lessons that have emerged from them. Environmental disasters differ from natural disasters. Natural disasters arise from natural forces, such as floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. These natural disasters can, and often do, wreak havoc over a wide area and cause deaths in the hundreds, thousands, and even hundreds of thousands. They tend to happen suddenly, have a severe impact, and then recede quickly, in hours or days.

Environmental disasters, in contrast, arise from manmade forces. They pollute the environment—air, water, or land—for months, decades, or, in the case of some radiation elements, thousands of years. Like natural disasters, some environmental disasters can happen quickly, as at Chernobyl and at Seveso, Italy, where an explosion released toxic chemicals into surrounding communities, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of families. Others can develop slowly over time, as at Love Canal in New York, where toxic chemicals seeped into the ground over decades and surfaced in a neighborhood, first threatening the residents, then finally driving them away. In Minamata, Japan, the disposal and release of poisonous mercury into the sea spanned several decades and inflicted unspeakable suffering on entire communities.

Environmental disasters sometimes kill people outright, as at Bhopal, India, where thousands died almost instantly after an explosion at a chemical plant spread a cloud of toxic fumes over the city. The more distinguishing characteristic of environmental disasters, however, is that they often produce their worst health effects only months or years afterward. It was many years after the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, for example, that children began to suffer from cancer of the thyroid as a result of their exposure to radioactive materials. The consequences of environmental disasters are in many ways more insidious than those of natural disasters.

Because these environmental disasters are manmade, there is almost always someone to blame, usually the polluter or an ineffective government agency. Not surprisingly, we react differently to suffering that is inflicted by other people rather than by natural forces, especially when the suffering results from a company’s callous failure to protect the environment in which we all live. If we are injured or lose property as a result of a flood or hurricane, we don’t get angry at the water or wind. But if a company’s chemicals contaminate our water and threaten our health and that of our children, we get damned angry. And we want the threat stopped, by the company or by the responsible government agencies.

Environmental disasters can also be distinguished from industrial accidents. While industrial accidents are also manmade, they tend to develop quickly and be short lived, and they pose little lasting danger to the environment. An accident at a munitions factory is a good example: Someone makes a mistake or material is defective, and an explosion occurs, killing workers and destroying property. The damage is over in a short time span. Accidents kill quickly; environmental disasters invade peoples’ lives for years.

These distinctions are not hard and fast, and they overlap at times. Bhopal, Seveso, and Chernobyl were industrial accidents, but their wide-reaching effects, their impact on the environment, and their long-lasting health effects set them apart from other industrial accidents.

While each environmental disaster unfolds differently, there are certain patterns of human action that set in motion the events that cause such turmoil. Sometimes someone acts carelessly, or negligently, as in the Exxon Valdez disaster: after the captain of an oil tanker drank too much alcohol and abandoned his duties, 11 million gallons of spilled oil damaged an entire ecosystem. Sometimes the conduct of a polluter rises to criminal recklessness, as in the case of the mercury poisoning at Minamata. In that case, the chemical company knew for years that its wastes were causing horrible deformities among the people of the fishing communities, and yet its managers continued to dump mercury wastes into the nearby fishing grounds. At times someone acts deliberately, as when retreating Iraqi soldiers set oil wells on fire in Kuwait during the 1991 Gulf War.

Often the careless or reckless act that triggers a disaster is not simply a mistake or an accident, but comes about as a consequence of inadequate training, outmoded equipment, or insufficient staffing. Such inadequacies are often the result of a company trying to reduce costs. At Times Beach, Missouri, a commercial firm saved money by hiring an unqualified waste hauler to dispose of their toxic material. At the nuclear facility at Windscale, England, in 1957, a rush to meet production deadlines led to the release of radioactive materials onto the countryside.

When something starts to go wrong in a company’s operation, those directly involved often deny that anything really disastrous is happening, thus exacerbating the problem. At Three Mile Island, in Pennsylvania, operators of a nuclear power plant ignored indications on their instruments that something was wrong. Failing to appreciate the imminent danger, the plant continued to operate and released radioactive materials onto an unsuspecting countryside.

As the author Barry Commoner forcefully argues, many environmental disasters are the inevitable outcome of the technological developments that produce modern conveniences. When toxic chemicals emerge from manufacturing processes, they have to go somewhere; when oil is shipped long distances in single-hull tankers, a breach of that hull releases large quantities of oil; when energy is produced by controlling nuclear fusion, human error can cause the loss of that control. We live with the by-products of what we manufacture.

As clear as the causes of these environmental disasters may appear to be, the consequences often remain uncertain. Some are visible, such as the fires in the Kuwaiti oil wells, or the dense fog that blanketed London in December 1952. But with the by-products of modern technology, the harmful substances are often invisible, such as the dioxin in the soils of Times Beach or the toxic chemicals dumped into Love Canal and the Rhine River. In many situations, the full reach of toxic chemicals cannot be determined. At Seveso and Love Canal, authorities could not accurately identify how far into the community the dangerous material had spread.

When a flood strikes, or a hurricane blows through, the cause of our suffering is immediately evident. But when we learn that our water or air has been poisoned and we cannot taste or see that poison, we often do not know the extent of our risk or what further danger awaits us. Such uncertainty is intensified by the fact that disaster-caused illnesses often do not manifest themselves until years or decades after an accident. Sometimes, when communities are given inadequate information, they react in ways that exacerbate the suffering of the victims of these disasters. In Minamata, before the communities learned of the mercury poisoning as the source of their troubles, they assumed that the mysterious disease was communicable and therefore alienated those who suffered from it.

Environmental disasters are deeply disruptive to communities in numerous other ways. They often require the relocation of entire communities from their homes, sometimes permanently. Psychological stress, whether from being uprooted from a community or from grappling with the uncertainty of disease, can be nearly as debilitating as the physical harm. The emotional toll remains one of the hidden costs of environmental disasters.

The turmoil that accompanies environmental disasters erupts in a fairly predictable pattern. The initial consequences are often immediate and severe; they are followed by a lull; then finally the devastating consequences emerge. When the famous London fog descended, it covered everything and everyone with a thick cloak of black soot, but it was gone within a few days, to the great relief of everyone. Yet, several months later, officials determined that more than 4,000 people had died as a result of the severely polluted air. At Three Mile Island, a nuclear accident prompted an emergency declaration, and fears of a possible meltdown led to an evacuation. The report was later deemed a false alarm, but later still authorities realized that the initial emergency was far more serious than had first been imagined. Confusion often reigns in such situations, and events are not always what they seem.

As uncertainty sets in, some will invariably minimize the dangers, again, in part, to reduce costs. Polluters have a vested interest in attempting to reassure the public and regulatory agencies that a situation is not as bad as it may first appear. Regulatory agencies often lack the financial resources to determine the extent of a risk, or to do what is necessary to protect the public. Paying for the health effects of such disasters can dwarf even the astronomical costs of cleaning up environmental disasters. Though more than $480 billion was spent to clean up Chernobyl, Belarus now spends close to 20 percent of its gross domestic product every year on costs related to the disaster.

Disasters often occur because a particular industry or a single company dominates a local economy, and as a consequence, the governmental authorities fail to provide oversight or enforcement to correct operational deficiencies. Chemical companies controlled local economies in Minamata, Seveso, Love Canal, Bhopal, and in Basel, Switzerland, near the Rhine River. Private and government-owned nuclear facilities dominated the economies in Windscale, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl. In each case, government agencies could not or would not provide adequate oversight or enforcement. As a result, companies failed to install adequate safety equipment, failed to maintain safety systems, and ignored warning signs. People living near the facilities suffered the consequences.

Without adequate environmental laws and regulations, companies generally choose the least costly way to operate. At Love Canal and Times Beach, the companies disposed of highly toxic waste through the least expensive method. The economic goals of a particular government or political ambitions can also lead to cost-cutting and increased risk of disaster. The British government’s ambition to become a nuclear power blinded it to certain risks at the Windscale nuclear plant. Soviet economic goals led to careless operations at Chernobyl. Successive governments in Brazil sanctioned the exploitation of the rainforest, while ignoring the environmental consequences of their policies.

Ordinary citizens also participate in the destruction of our environment. A complacent reliance on dirty but cheap fossil fuel contributed to the London fog of 1952 and continues to produce global warming that threatens the entire world community. While these stories of environmental disasters raise haunting images, it is important to recognize that the disasters also occasion heroic behavior from the most ordinary citizens. In the early 1980s when I was in private law practice, I became involved in representing citizen groups who were trying to persuade government agencies to confront the dreadful conditions of landfills near where they lived. The deep conviction, courage, and persistence of these people in their fight to protect their environment and their lives taught me the critical need for environmental enforcement and for active citizen participation in that effort.

I was drawn to the ways in which these environmental disasters unfolded, but also to the ways in which people responded to them. As is evident in their stories, ordinary people refused to allow the disasters to destroy their lives; they refused to remain quiet while others dismissed their concerns. When the polluters tried to deny the effects of their actions, and government officials tried to minimize the dangers, these ordinary citizens gathered the facts on their own. They rallied other citizens to join their effort. They created networks with other groups. They sought help wherever they could—from experts, the wider community, government workers—and they learned whom to trust and whom to suspect. They persisted.

When African penguins nesting on Dassen and Robben Islands off the coast of South Africa were threatened by an oil spill, local environmentalists issued a call for help. The response from around the world was immediate and generous, and the ensuing penguin rescue was dramatic. At Chernobyl, firemen, policemen, doctors, and nurses rushed to the scene of that nuclear inferno to help, and some paid with their lives. In Missouri, two citizens secretly followed a waste hauler for more than a year, documenting where he sprayed and dumped waste, including the town of Times Beach.

In addition to individual action, wider communities respond to environmental disasters with demands for greater protection. Almost every disaster has been followed by calls for government regulation and enforcement. The London fog of 1952 led to the British Clean Air Act of 1956, which finally addressed the long-term fouling of London’s air. Love Canal was instrumental in the passage of the 1980 U.S. Superfund law, which provided funds to clean up abandoned toxic waste sites and aggressive enforcement powers to make sure polluters pay for cleanups. The careless disposal of dioxin materials from Seveso led to the European Union’s Seveso Directive, which now regulates the transnational shipment of toxic wastes. It often takes an environmental disaster to overcome the normal stagnation and vested interests that block regulatory reform.

The stories that follow demonstrate the critical role of active citizen participation in the protection of our environment. But a cautionary note must be sounded. Voices still dismiss efforts to protect and improve our environment with claims that environmental protections are unnecessary and much too costly. Some argue that concerns over polluted air and water are exaggerated and that we cannot cut back on the use of fossil fuel until it is absolutely certain that global warming is upon us. These stories and the lessons they teach us help to dispel such dismissive responses. The environmental disasters portrayed here are real. They put large populations at substantial risk. The full consequences of each of these disasters could have been avoided. Preventive measures would have cost a fraction of what was spent on cleaning up the accidents and on protecting people from further risks.

The refusal to devote sufficient resources to environmental protection efforts is not just a policy choice; it is not just a means of rewarding interests that are tied to polluting technologies or industries. More dangerously, it is the result of an inability or failure to imagine the consequences of our actions. As these stories demonstrate, those responsible for controlling lethal substances are often the ones who fail to imagine that their actions could put people at risk, or they ignore the enormity of the risk. The chemical company in Minamata refused to admit or accept that its waste could be causing the devastating disease inflicted on nearby fishing villages. In other cases, bound to routine, nuclear operators could not believe the readings on their instruments when they signaled critical dangers.

These stories reveal the causes of environmental disasters, how they affect people in deeply disturbing ways, and how critical it is to protect our environment. If we want to avoid further environmental disasters, we need to be vigilant: watch, learn the facts, organize and network, get help wherever we can, and persist. If we are not careful, and if we do not take into our own hands the responsibility for preventing environmental harm, further environmental disasters are inevitable. At this moment, the specter of global warming threatens to destroy us like an avenging angel. We are all vulnerable on this borrowed earth, and we must protect the environment that nurtures us and on which all life depends.

Barry Commoner, “Failure of the Environmental Effort,” Environmental Law Reporter 18: 10195 (June 1988).

At the back of the book are some Web site addresses for various environmental and citizen groups that can provide further information on ways of protecting our environment.

On his Web site, the author has provided additional material on these environmental disasters, called “Postscripts,” that trace implications of the stories and offer some further lessons to be learned.  See