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1. As of January 2016, the gas leak from an underground storage facility that has sickened some Los Angeles residents and sent thousands from their homes has been out of control for almost two months. Millions of pounds of methane are leaking into the atmosphere, and California officials say it's shaping up to be a major ecological disaster.
Thousands have been forced to evacuate the area, and several lawsuits have already been filed by people who claim they've been harmed by the leak. "I have felt the effects, as my husband has — the stomach, the vomiting, the headaches. But when my 17-month-old son has to be on a nebulizer and comes home with bloody noses, there's no excuse," resident Robin Shapiro said.
So far, efforts to contain the gas leak have been unsuccessful. State officials say it could take months before it's stopped. SoCalGas, which is owned by Sempra Energy, has spent some $50 million in its efforts to stop the leak and mitigate its effects, and Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency over its emissions.
2. In April 2014, Flint, Michigan's drinking water became contaminated with lead while the city was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager. As a cost-cutting move, city officials began drawing its water from the Flint River and treating it at the city water treatment plant while it waited for a new water pipeline to Lake Huron to be completed.
The state's Department of Environmental Quality has conceded it failed to require needed chemicals to be added to the corrosive river water. As a result, lead leached from pipes and fixtures into the drinking water.
Michigan's chief medical executive, Eden Wells, says that the children in Flint (8,657) who drank the city's water since April 2014 have been exposed to lead. That may be a low estimate — it doesn't include unborn children whose mothers drank tainted water during their pregnancies, or children and pregnant women who reside outside Flint but were exposed while visiting relatives, childcare centers or hospitals inside city limits. (There is no safe level of lead in the body for anyone, but the impacts of lead are considered most severe on the developing brains and nervous systems of children and fetuses.)
On January 5, 2016, Governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in the area. A week later, he mobilized the National Guard to assist with distribution of bottled water and water filters. Although Flint switched back to Detroit water in October 2015, the danger remains because of damage the Flint River water did to the distribution system.
President Obama declared a federal state of emergency in Flint on January 16, 2015 and has allocated $5 million in aid to the area.
3. On December 2, 1984, an accident at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India caused at least 30 tons of a highly toxic gas called methyl isocyanate, as well as several other poisonous gasses, to be released into the air. The gasses stayed low to the ground, causing sickness to those who lived in the densely populated area. Their eyes and throats burned, some experienced nausea, and many died. Estimates of deaths as a result of the accident vary from as few as 3,800 to as many as 16,000, but it is believed 15,000 people have been killed over the years.
32 years later, the toxins remain. Many who were exposed to the gas have given birth to physically and mentally disabled children. The government has conceded the area is contaminated as there are still thousands of tons of hazardous waste buried underground. Survivors have been fighting to have the site cleaned up, but their efforts were stymied when Michigan-based Dow Chemical took over Union Carbide in 2001.
4. On March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck a reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound. Her hull was torn, and she released 11 million gallons of oil into the environment. Exxon and the Alyeska Pipeline Company were slow to move on containing the spill, and when a storm blew in it spread oil everywhere. More than 1,000 miles of coastline were fouled, and hundreds of thousands of animals perished.
Captain Joseph Hazelwood was convicted on a misdemeanor charge of negligent discharge of oil, fined $50,000, and sentenced to 1,000 hours of community service. Exxon ended up paying billions in cleanup costs and fines and remains tied up in court cases to this day.
26 years later, the oil has mostly disappeared from view, but many Alaskan beaches remain polluted, and crude oil can still be found just inches below the surface.
5. The collapse of two dams at a Brazilian mine in November 2015 is an absolute catastrophe, with effects that could haunt the country for years to come.
Nine were killed, almost 20 are still missing, and 500 people were displaced from their homes when the dams from an iron ore mine in southeastern Brazil broke. That's just the initial effect, however. The sheer volume of waste gorging from the dams is staggering — some 60 million cubic meters of mining waste, the equivalent of 187 oil tankers, is spreading across a 500 km area.
Owner Samarco Mineração SA has repeatedly said the mud is not toxic, but scientists disagree. Over 250,000 Brazilians are now left without a supply of drinking water, and local authorities have ordered rescued families to wash thoroughly and dispose of clothes that came in contact with the mud. As the sludge continues to harden, farming will become more and more difficult, and the crops may even be unsafe for consumption.
6. In March 2011, Tepco's Fukushima Daiichi facility located approximately 124 miles northeast of Tokyo was hit by a giant tsunami with 17 meter high waves that were created by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake.
Operators lost control of the plant when the power supply, including emergency back-up, failed amid massive flooding. As cooling systems malfunctioned, reactors 1, 2 and 3 suffered meltdowns. (Reactor 4 was closed for routine maintenance at the time, but one of several hydrogen explosions blew the walls and roof off the reactor building.)
Radiation leakage following the explosions forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people from the surrounding area. An exclusion zone, roughly 11 miles by 19 miles, remains in force around the plant, and the entire facility is now being decommissioned. However, Tepco's clean-up, which has been sharply criticized by environmentalists, is expected to take up to 40 years. They have, so far, been unable to remove hundreds of fuel rods stored nearby because the earthquake destabilized or destroyed large parts of the buildings they are stored in. Furthermore, radiation continues to contaminate underground water.
7. The Salton Sea lies 71 meters above sea level, south of Joshua Tree National Park, some (155 miles) southeast of Los Angeles. In the mid-20th century, it was a playground for the rich. Today, the once populated resort looks like a ghost town.
Beginning in the early '70s, the Salton Sea began to shrink, leading to a surge in salinity and a reduction in depth which ended its days as a fishing and boating haven. The recent drought, combined with the end of a complex agreement with Colorado River officials in 2017, will lead to a further decrease in water flowing into the sea. The lake will lose a third of its surface area in just a few years while its bed of sand mixed with sediments of cadmium, phosphates, fertilizer and insecticides will spread further, carried by frequent storms.
Tim Krantz, professor of environmental studies at the University of Redlands, issued a stark warning, saying, "It would be an air quality disaster unparalleled in the world."
Cases of asthma, lung cancer, and other respiratory conditions could surge in an area where they are already four times the national average. The consequences for the ecosystem may be even more catastrophic, decimating the few fish who remain there, as well as birds deprived of a key stopping-off point on their migratory flight path.
Local officials, environmentalists, and researchers are trying everything to convince California's government to act and free up funds. Numerous projects have been launched — some more realistic than others — but would cost between five and 10 million dollars.
Still, experts believe the cost of inaction will be much even higher, at $20 billion to $70 billion, not to mention the risks of interminable legal action by residents falling sick from a long-expected disaster.
8. Love Canal in upstate New York was the brainchild of an 18th-century entrepreneur, William T. Love, who envisioned a canal connecting two levels of the Niagara River with the intention of providing hydroelectric power to the area. However, the economic collapse of 1892 caused his plan to fail. Only 1 mile — at fifteen feet wide and ten feet deep — had ever been dug.
The canal was sold in 1920 to the city, who began using the land as a landfill for chemical waste disposal. The U.S. Army also began burying waste from its chemical warfare experiments. Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation purchased the site in 1947 and buried 21,000 tons of their toxic waste there. Once the site was filled, the chemical company sold the land back to the city who, in turn, started building a neighborhood on it.
In the following years, homeowners reported instances of bad health and strange odors, but it was not until the President of the Love Canal Homebuilders Association, Lois Gibbs, investigated the area that the severity of the situation was fully realized. Sick residents were not allowed to relocate with compensation until national attention on the area intensified. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared the site a federal emergency zone.
Scientists determined that the chemicals dumped into the landfill seeped into the basements of homes and the air. Over 800 families relocated and the Environmental Protection Agency sued Hooker's parent company Occidental Petroleum for $129 million.
Love Canal became the flagship of the Superfund program. The Environmental Protection Agency has since cleaned up 21 tons of toxic chemicals on the 16-acre site.