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Worst Man-Made Environmental Disasters

While natural disasters can do much damage and devastation, some of the worst environmental disasters in history have been caused by people. Some are accidental. Some are speculated to be the work of government conspiracy. The 33 disasters on this list are ordered chronologically starting with the most recent, though they could be grouped by type. Moreover, the repetition of disaster types supports the argument that humans have failed to really learn from past mistakes. If this argument is correct, we may be adding another disaster to the top of the list fairly soon, but for now, here are our top picks among some of the world's worst man-made environmental disasters.

  1. The Ones that Made History
    1. BP Gulf Oil Spill
    2. Tennessee Coal Ash Spill
    3. Sidoarjo Mud Volcano
    4. Jilin
    5. Al-Mishraq Fire
    6. West Virginia/Kentucky Coal Sludge Spill
    7. Baia Mare Cyanide Spill
    8. Libby, Montana Asbestos Contamination
    9. Gulf War Oil Spill
    10. Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
    11. Chernobyl
    12. Chevron Oil Refinery Spill
    13. Bhopal India Gas Leak
    14. Meltdown at Three Mile Island
    15. Amoco Cadiz
    16. Cactus Dome Marshall Islands
    17. Seveso
    18. Times Beach Missouri Dioxin Contamination
    19. Fire Hole in Turkmenistan
    20. The Palomares Incident
    21. Ecocide in Vietnam
    22. Castle Bravo
    23. London's "Great Smog" 1952
    24. Love Canal
    25. Minamata Bay toxic poisoning
    26. The Great Dustbowl
    27. Alabama PCB Poisoning
  2. Ongoing Disasters
    1. The Aral Sea
    2. Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone
    3. Great Pacific Garbage Patch
    4. Guiyu China
    5. The Niger Delta
    6. Picher, Oklahoma Lead Contamination

The Ones that Made History

BP Gulf Oil Spill

BP Gulf Oil Spill

Now ranked as largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history, the BP spill resulted from the April 20,2010 Deepwater Horizon Drilling rig explosion. Hundreds of millions of gallons of oil have been spilled to date and it continues to damage marine and wildlife habitats along with the Gulf's fishing and tourism industry.

Tennessee Coal Ash Spill

Tennessee Coal Ash Spill

On December 22, 2008, a wall holding back 80 acres of sludge - a byproduct of the ash from coal combustion - from the TN Valley Authority's Fossil Plant, gave way. It unleashed over a billion gallons of toxic sludge in Kingston, Tennesee.  At least 300 acres of surrounding land were affected and 15 homes destroyed. The land is now contaminated with arsenic, mercury and lead.

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Sidoarjo Mud Volcano

Sidoarjo Mud Volcano
In May 2006, gas drilling on the island of  Java in Indonesia resulted in a "mud volcano" killing 13 people. Since then, hot sulfuric mud has been gushing from the ground in Sidoarjo and is expected to expand and erupt for 30 more years.


Jilin chemical plant explosion

A chemical plant exploded in Jilin City in China in November 2005, polluting the Songhua River with an estimated 100 tons of pollutants containing benzene and nitrobenzene entering the water. 10,000 residents were evacuated.

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Al-Mishraq Fire

Al-Mishraq Fire

In 2003, a fire in a sulphur plant near Mosul, Iraq released 21 thousand tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere each day for nearly a month. Many people were hospitalized and most of the area's vegetation was destroyed as a result.

West Virginia/Kentucky Coal Sludge Spill

West Virginia Kentucky Coal Spill
In October of 2000, 300 million gallons of coal sludge from mining operations flooded land, polluted rivers and destroyed property in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, killing everything in 100 miles of stream all the way to the Ohio River. Investigations were stopped short by the Bush Administration.

Baia Mare Cyanide Spill

Baia Mare Cyanide SpillOn Jan 30, 2000, a dam restraining water from a gold-mining operation in Romania, in the town of Baia Mare, broke. The water was contaminated with 55-110 tons of cyanide and other heavy metals and traveled through several rivers in Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia, eventually reaching the Danube river. Massive amounts of fish and aquatic plants were killed and up to 100 people were hospitalized after eating contaminated fish.

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Libby, Montana Asbestos Contamination

Libby Asbestos Contamination
W. R. Grace Plant in Libby, Montana spewed tremolite asbestos over the town for decades killing over 200 people and sickening over 1,000. The company knowingly released asbestos and tried to hide its dangers from residents and is now bankrupt after facing 270,000 asbestos-related lawsuits. Residents have been facing the effects of this disaster since 1999.

Gulf War Oil Spill

Gulf War Oil Spill
In 1991, Iraqi soldiers leaving Kuwait purposely spilled eight million barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf to prevent a landing by the U.S. Marines. Wildlife was damaged in the Gulf and in surrounding areas in Iraq and Kuwait. Ten years later, marshlands and tidal flats still contained significant amounts of oil. 

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
On the coast of Alaska in 1989, Exxon Valdez oil tanker accidentally struck a reef releasing 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound eventually covering 11,000 miles of ocean. The spill killed 250,000 sea birds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 orcas and billions of salmon and herring eggs and still affects many shore-dwelling animals in the area to this day.

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An explosion at the core of a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl nuclear power plant in April 1986 released more than 50 tons of radioactive material into the air above the Ukraine. According to Ukranian officials, 4,000 people died and 70,000 were disabled by radiation-related illness.

Chevron Oil Refinery Spill

Chevron Oil Spill
In 1985, authorities discovered that 252 million gallons of oil and chemicals had been dumped into aquifers beneath the refinery from decades of leaking pipes and tanks. As a result, the city of Los Angeles had to supply electricity to pump clean water across the state by burning fossil fuels, which led to increases in air pollution, asthma and global warming.

Bhopal India Gas Leak

Bhopal disaster
This has been called the world's worst catastrophe. On December 2-3, 1984, methyl isocyanite gas leaked from a pesticide plant in Bhopal, near Madhya Pradesh in India, resulting in the exposure of over 500,000 people. Twenty-thousand deaths since the leak can be attributed to the accident, which killed 3,000 people in a few days and is linked to hundreds of thousands of illnesses since.

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Meltdown at Three Mile Island

Three mile Island Meltdown

On March 28, 1979, A partial core meltdown at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania was followed by the release of radioactive gases into the atmosphere. Speculation over whether enough radiation was released to cause significant harm has been up in the air since. Parents of children born with birth defects and other residents accused PA of hiding the health impacts of the accident. Class-action lawsuits have been filed, but no hearings have been allowed.

Amoco Cadiz

Amoco Cadiz Oil Spill

Ranked as the fifth largest oil spill in history, the Amoco Cadiz, bearing 1.6 million barrels of oil, sank into the Atlantic Ocean near Portsall in March 1978.

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Cactus Dome Marshall Islands

Cactus Dome

In the late 1970's the US government dug up 111,000 cubic yards of radioactive debris left by nuclear test explosions in the Marshall Islands, and deposited it on Runit Island into a 350-foot wide crater left by the nuclear tests. The area, which is still radioactive, was then covered by an enormous, 100,000 square-foot concrete dome.



In July of 1976, an explosion at a chemical manufacturing plant north of Milan in Italy released TCDD, a dioxin, into the atmosphere. The nearby town of Seveso was most affected. Within days 3,300 animals died and many more were slaughtered to prevent the spread of disease into the food chain. Children were hospitalized with skin inflamation and nearly 500 people were found to have skin lesions.

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Times Beach Missouri Dioxin Contamination

Times Beach Dioxin

From 1972-1976, roads were sprayed with an oil mix created in a factory that once produced Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, leading to a complete evacuation of Times Beach. The drying and dusting of the road surface resulted in the largest civilian exposure to dioxin in the US.

Fire Hole in Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan Fire Hole
The desert in Turkmenistan has a 328-foot-wide hole that has been on fire, continuously, for 38 years. The hole was caused by a drilling rig accident in 1971 that caused the ground to collapse and the rig to fall in. When poisonous fumes began leaking from the hole, the Soviets set it on fire to avoid a deadly catastrophe.

The Palomares Incident

Palomares incident

On January 17, 1966, a bomber collided with a tanker during mid-air refueling and two of four hydrogen bombs hit the ground and detonated, resulting in the contamination of a 490-acre area with radioactive plutonium, off of Spain's coast.

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Ecocide in Vietnam

Ecocide in Vietnam
Ecocide refers to an herbicide disaster in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. In order to keep communists from hiding in the jungle's vegetation, starting in 1961, the U.S. Army sprayed it with herbicides like Agent Orange. The toxic spray caused cancer, birth defects and disabilities.

Castle Bravo

Castle Bravo nuclear disaster
This is the name of the thermonuclear weapon that was being tested by the United States and upon detonation, released 15 megatons of radiation - 1,000 times stronger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. This radioactive disaster happened at Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954, in the Pacific Ocean and caused birth defects, illness and death among residents of the surrounding islands.

London's "Great Smog" 1952

Great Smog London
In December of 1952 an acid-infused smog engulfed London for 4 days killing 4,000 people in a single month. Eight thousand later deaths are attributed to the pollution, which is believed to be mainly sulfur dioxide. British Parliament passed the Clean Air Act to mitigate the risk of future smog.

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Love Canal

Love Canal Toxic WasteThis neighborhood in Niagra Falls became a dumping ground for toxic waste in the 1920's when William T. Love abandoned his attempt to build a canal. In the 1940's, Hooker Chemical began dumping industrial waste in the canal and covering it with dirt. The waste was exposed in the 1950's when the local school board bought the land for $1 and two years later construction on the dumping site began to expose the toxic waste to local residents who suffered from serious health problems including asthma, miscarriages and mental retardation, as a result of the toxins. It was these problems that brought Love Canal into national headlines. A survey found that 56 percent of the children born in that area from 1974-1978 had birth defects.

Minamata Bay toxic poisoning

Minimata Bay Toxic Poisoning
From 1932-1968, Chisso Corporation, a petrochemical plant, dumped 27 tons of a poisonous toxic mercury compound into Japan's Minimata Bay, causing symptoms such as tremors, brain damage and vision problems in nearby residents. Other, long-term repercussions include death, insanity, birth defects and deformities.

The Great Dustbowl

Great Dustbowl Dirty Thirties
1930-1936. Also known as the "Dirty Thirties," 1930-1936 marks a period of severe dust storms in the drought-stricken American and Canadian prairie regions, caused by drought and extensive farming without soil conservation to prevent erosion. The soil dried and turned to dust and blew away in large dark clouds; farmland became useless and many were forced to leave their homes.

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Alabama PCB Poisoning

Alabama PCB Poisoning
Corporate giant Monsanto dumped toxic waste into West Anniston Creek for nearly 40 years along with millions of pounds of now-banned industrial PCB's into open-pit landfills. Fish were killed instantly. Monsanto tried to cover it up for decades and denied that PCB's were even dangerous. The corporation remains unapologetic to this day.

Ongoing Disasters

The Aral Sea

Aral Sea Dry
The Aral Sea has shrunk by 90 percent, due to a Soviet project to boost cotton production. Once the world's fourth-largest lake, its evaporation has now left behind layers of highly-salted sand which winds can carry as far as Scandinavia and Japan and which plague local residents with health problems.

Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone

Gulf Dead Zone

Over 8,000 square miles of oxygen-deprived water in the Gulf of Mexico - highly polluted and nearly devoid of wildlife.

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Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Great Pacific Garbage Patch

This is a gyre of marine litter in the central North Pacific Ocean, including plastics, chemical sludge and debris, that is roughly the size of Texas and contains 3.5 million tons of trash. Fish are ingesting plastics and other toxins at a fast rate and they will soon be unsafe to eat.

Guiyu China

Guiyu China E Waste

Guiyu is the world's second most polluted place on the planet, due to the dumping, dissembling, burning and acid soaking of enormous amounts of electronic trash.

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The Niger Delta

Niger Delta Oil Spills

This is an ongoing disaster with 7,000 oil spills occurring between 1970-2000. The Nigerian government and oil companies continue to ignore the problem.

Picher, Oklahoma Lead Contamination

Picher Lead Contamination
In Picher, Oklahoma, gigantic piles of lead-laced mine waste covered 25,000 acres and poisoned local residents eventually causing evacuation of the town.

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