Toxic heavy metals that spilled into Colorado’s Animas River this month turned the waterway a sickening shade of orange.
Man did that.
While inspecting the abandoned Gold King mine near Silverton, Colo., workers with the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally unleashed 3 million gallons of mine waste containing high concentrations of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals, into the river.
The EPA has taken full responsibility for the accident. But locals and state officials are frustrated: When will this get cleaned up? What are the long-term threats to the local water supply? Is it safe to go back on the river?
As history has proved in other man-made disasters in the United States, Mother Nature, and humans for that matter, do not rebound easily when the environment is trashed.
1978: Toxic waste contamination, Love Canal, N.Y.
Entrepreneur William T. Love set out to build a planned industrial community, “Model City,” on a three-block tract of land on the eastern edge of Niagara Falls. He wanted to dig a canal between the upper and lower Niagara Rivers and use hydroelectric power to cheaply fuel his dream community.
The dream died, a partially dug canal was left behind. But it would serve another purpose: as a dump site for industrial waste.
In 1942, Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Corp. bought the Love Canal site. Over the next 11 years the company dumped about 22,000 tons of chemical waste into the canal.
When it was finished, Hooker covered the dump with dirt and sold the land to the city for $1.
Homes were built on the site; a grade school, too. Then in 1978 Love Canal made national headlines when 82 different compounds – 11 of them suspected carcinogens – in discarded drum containers were discovered to be leaking their contents into backyards and basements.
An EPA official reported corroding drums breaking through the ground, trees dying and black puddles of noxious substances spread around the neighborhood.
The toll on humans was frightening. One survey found that more than half of the children born there from 1974 to 1978 had birth defects. Residents also reported asthma, miscarriages, mental disabilities and other health problems.
The federal government relocated families and declared Love Canal the first federal disaster area caused by man in the nation’s history.
Love Canal gave birth to the EPA’s Superfund program designed to clean up sites contaminated with hazardous substances.
But is the town clean? People who have moved into the area because they thought it had been cleaned up have filed lawsuits in recent years claiming they are getting sick just like townspeople in the 1970s.
1979: Nuclear meltdown, Middletown, Pa.
In the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history, a partial core meltdown at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station on March 28, 1979, released radiation into the air, prompting pregnant women and preschoolers within a 5-mile radius to be evacuated.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission did not know how much radiation was released, but more than 2,400 residents filed class-action lawsuits seeking compensation for death and disease.
The owners of the plant reportedly paid millions of dollars in damages to local residents whose children were born with birth defects.
1989: Oil spill, Prince William Sound, Alaska
In one of the country’s worst environmental disasters, the Exxon Valdez supertanker hit a reef in Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989. Eleven of its cargo tanks cracked open, spilling 10.8 million gallons of crude that eventually slimed more than 11,000 square miles of ocean and polluted 1,300 miles of shoreline.
One estimate of the toll on nature: 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles and up to 22 killer whales died, along with billions of salmon and herring eggs.
Some 20 years later, the spill is not yet fully cleaned up. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council and other groups are still working to repair the damage and restore the area.
1999: Asbestos pollution, Libby, Mont.
A jury in May 2009 acquitted W.R. Grace & Co. and three former executives of knowingly exposing mine workers and residents of Libby to asbestos-filled smoke and pollution. The exposure sickened more than 1,000 people and killed more than 200 people.
Companies began mining vermiculite, used in construction materials, in the area in 1919. Experts believe that miners and residents were exposed to toxic asbestos dust for decades. Grace & Co., which took over operation of the Libby mines in 1963, was accused of knowingly continuing mining operations in spite of knowing the health risks.
Federal prosecutors accused the company of exposing the town’s 100,000 residents to asbestos – it covered grass and cars and filled the air. The town made national headlines in 1999 when the EPA arrived to clean it up.
“There’s never been a case where so many people were sickened or killed by environmental crime,” Justice Department prosecutor David Uhlmann told CNN.
In 2011 a district court judge approved Montana’s $43 million settlement with more than 1,300 plaintiffs regarding the town’s contamination. More than 200 lawsuits claimed the state did not do enough to warn mine workers and protect local residents.
2000: Coal slurry spill, West Virginia-Kentucky border
In October 2000 the bottom broke out of a 68-acre reservoir owned by Massey Energy Co., unleashing 300 million gallons of coal slurry – thick, pudding-like waste product from mining operations – onto land and into rivers along the West Virginia-Kentucky boarder.
The sludge blackened more than 100 miles of streams, polluted the water supply of more than a dozen towns and killed aquatic life as the toxic flood made its way to the Ohio River.
It was a toxic sludge full of hazardous chemicals, including arsenic and mercury, according to “60 Minutes,” which interviewed the man who blew the whistle on the government’s cleanup response.
Jack Spadaro, the head of the Labor Department’s National Mine Health and Safety Academy, called it the most serious environmental disaster in the history of the eastern United States – 25 times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.
Massey Energy eventually paid $46 million for the cleanup, along with about $3.5 million in state fines and an undisclosed sum to residents, according to The Washington Post.
Massey ended up studying other impoundments, or slurry ponds, it used. The one that failed is no longer in use.
2006: Lead contamination, Picher, Okla.
Wired and the Environmental Protection Agency both called it “America’s most toxic town.”
For sure, Picher is a ghost town now.
It used to be one of the most productive and bustling areas for lead and zinc mining in the world. Abandoned homes and empty storefronts are virtually all that’s left now.
By 1967, when the mining stopped, contaminated water from the mines had turned a local creek red, and hills that children used for sledding were found to be contaminated with lead. Residents had cancer; most of the town’s gradeschoolers couldn’t read at grade level.
Though the federal government declared the town a Superfund site in 1981, most residents didn’t leave town until 2006. By then federal officials said the town was too toxic to clean up and paid people to leave. The town ceased to be a town in 2009.
2008: Coal ash spill, Martin County, Tenn.
Considered the largest industrial spill in the United States, an earthen dam at the Tennessee Valley Authority power plant crumbled in December 2008.
The break unleashed 5.4 million cubic yards of sludge-like coal ash into the nearby Emory and Clinch rivers and coated about 300 acres of land around the town of Kingston, Tenn.
The ash – the byproduct of burning coal mixed with water – destroyed homes and roads and was said to contain arsenic, lead, radioactive materials and other metals known to cause health problems.
A few months after the accident, Duke University scientists reported that exposure to dust and river sediment containing toxic metals and radioactivity from the spill posed a threat to local communities and could poison fish.
Since the spill, residents have reported a host of health problems, including headaches and seizures. Experts believe it might take decades to know the scope of the impact.
The TVA has spent $1 billion to clean up the spill and restore the area.
2010: Oil spill, Gulf of Mexico
The devastation began on April 22, 2010, when an oil well below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico blew out. It caused an explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 people and created the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
Before the well was finally capped 87 days later it leaked millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf.
Oil contaminated shorelines in all the Gulf states, affecting more than 400 species of animals. Sea creatures died, too, as the oil moved through the ocean.
New reports suggest that thousands of people who helped clean up the spill became sick, too. Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham found earlier this year that an oil dispersant used during cleanup operations can be harmful to humans and marine animals, though BP denied those findings.
The long-term impact of the spill is unknown. BP said earlier this year that the Gulf of Mexico is healing itself. But federal officials and environmental experts say it’s too soon to know if that’s true.