It has already been confirmed as New Zealand’s worst environmental disaster. After the MV Rena, a container ship carrying thousands of tonnes of fuel, ran aground on the Astrolabe Reef off the North Island’s Tauranga coast, a leak in its hull created a 5km oil slick. An expensive clean-up operation is in full swing, jumpsuited workers are now shovelling nuggets of tar off the sands of the country’s pristine beaches. There are, though, fears the crisis could grow even more serious should the Rena snap in two. Of course, the events in New Zealand are by no means unprecedented. They are merely the latest in a long line of disasters which seem to be the cost of doing business in an industrialised world.
When a pesticide plant in central India, owned by chemical company Union Carbide, sprung a leak, a cloud of chemical vapour suffused into the atmosphere in Bhopal, where residents suffered vomiting, severe eye irritation and a feeling of suffocation. In the immediate aftermath, 170,000 people were treated in hospitals and temporary clinics. There were mass cremations to dispose of dead bodies, and within a few days, leaves on trees fell off while food became scarce due to safety fears. Long-term, those exposed to the gas developed problems with their lungs, kidneys and livers, while the stillbirth rate increased by as much as 300 per cent.
Deepwater Horizon, 2010
Last year, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, operated by BP, exploded after an accident during drilling, resulting in the biggest oil spill in history. In the following months, nearly five million barrels of crude oil were released, devastating the ecology of the coastline along the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi Delta. BP set up a $20bn (£12.7bn) fund to compensate victims, so far paying out about $5bn (£3.2bn) to almost 200,000 claimants. Last month, the US government published its final report on the accident, identifying a defective cement job as the main cause of the explosion and the subsequent spill.
Mad Cow disease, 1993
Mad Cow disease, or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), affects cattle’s brains, spinal cords and internal organs and is caused by feeding cows a high-protein substance made from butchered sheep and cows. Regular cow feed is made of soybeans, but the ‘blood and bone’ substance was used as a substitute. BSE was first discovered in British cattle in 1986 – an outbreak later theorised to have been caused by the importation of cow feed from India – but reached epidemic proportions in the early Nineties. The outbreak spread to Europe and, in 1996, the European Union placed a 10-year ban on British beef, after it emerged its animal feed did not undergo a steam boiling process for sterilisation.
The Great Smog, 1952
An exceptionally cold London winter led to increased coal combustion, which created an air-borne combination of black soot, sticky particles of tar and gaseous sulphur dioxide. The smoke particles trapped in the fog gave it a yellow-black colour and the sulphur dioxide created an intense form of acid rain. Visibility dropped to a few metres and transport became largely impossible – motor vehicles were abandoned, trains disrupted and airports shut down. The smog episode killed about 12,000 people, mostly children, the elderly and those with existing respiratory conditions.
An explosion ripped through a chemical plant in Meda, Italy, releasing a toxic cloud of TCDD, a poisonous dioxin, into the atmosphere. Seveso, a small village downwind from the plant, was the area most grievously affected, although 11 communities were also contaminated, along a densely populated 6km stretch. Seveso victims developed chloracne – cysts and pustules on their skin – as a result. But the most disturbing aspect of the Seveso accident was that authorities had no idea the plant was a source of risk. The European Directive was created to prevent such ignorance in the future and to enhance industrial safety.
A fire at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine led to vast amounts of radioactive material being released into the atmosphere. Immediately following the accident, thousands were diagnosed with radiation sickness. Estimates of the death toll vary – some unofficial counts exceed 400,000. People who lived near the plant suffer disproportionately from various health problems. In Belarus, the incidence of thyroid cancer increased 2400 per cent, while birth defects in children of Chernobyl victims occurred at 250 per cent of the normal rate. Even today, it is believed more than four million people in the Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia still live on contaminated ground.
Exxon Valdez, 1989
When the American oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck the Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, to the west of Alaska, the resulting oil spill polluted 1900km of coastline and killed 250,000 sea birds. Exxon Mobil, the tanker’s owner, has paid more than $3.5bn (£2.3bn) in reparations for the accident, of which $2.1bn (£1.3bn) was allocated to ongoing clean-up operations. The remote location of the oil spill, though, exposed shortcomings in official response plans. In 2009, 20 years after the initial catastrophe, studies revealed the ecosystem and region would feel the effects for a further 30 years.