Posted by: bmeverett | July 27, 2010

The Worst Environmental Catastrophe Ever?

Drama is the name of the game in the media today. With a 24-hour news cycle and a slew of cable news channels, spectacular stories will grab the audience. Virtually every news channel that I have watched, including Fox News, refers to the Gulf Oil Spill as “The Worst Environmental Disaster in US History.” Politicians parrot that phrase. But is it true?

The spill was certainly terrible. Eleven workers on the rig were killed. Tourism on the Gulf Coast is way down, fishermen are out of work and sensitive ecosystems have been damaged. BP is currently estimating their possible liability at $32 billion. What disaster could possibly top that? Well, here are a few candidates.

1. The “Dust Bowl” of the 1930s. After World War I, global demand for agricultural products skyrocketed, and the US responded by offering huge amounts of land in the southwestern high plains of Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico to homesteaders, who were able to received 160-320 acres free of charge. This ecosystem had been stable for thousands of years based on prairie grasses which held the soil in place. Replacing these grasses with wheat worked fine until a severe drought in 1931 killed the wheat crops. With no ground cover at all, the topsoil began to blow away in huge dust storms known as “black blizzards.” Estimates of lost top soil run to several billion tons. On April 14, 1935, known as “Black Sunday,” the worst of these storms deposited eroded topsoil across the US East Coast and into the Atlantic Ocean. The damaged ecosystems produced across the high plains hordes of grasshoppers, insects and jackrabbits, whose populations spun out of control with the loss of predators.

There are no adequate records of the devastating impacts of the Dust Bowl. Respiratory problems, known as “dust pneumonia,” were widespread causing at least thousands of deaths. An estimated 2 million people were displaced after losing their farms and virtually everything else they owned. Entire towns disappeared from the map.

To make matters worse, the disaster was caused by the farmers themselves. Not deliberately, of course. Nobody understood the implications of altering the prairie ecosystem in that manner. Although the federal government did provide some relief, there was no company with deep pockets ready to accept the blame and compensate the victims.

2. The Johnstown Flood. On May 30, 1889, a massive storm dumped between 6 and 10 inches of rain across western Pennsylvania. About 70 miles east of Pittsburgh was the private resort of Lake Conemaugh, created and maintained by the South Fork Dam. On May 31, the dam failed, allowing 20 million tons of water to cascade down the Little Conemaugh River. The town of Johnstown and several smaller towns were hit by a wall of water 60 feet high moving at 40 miles an hour. The death toll was 2,209, including 396 children, making it the largest civilian disaster in American history up to that time. Four square miles of Johnstown were completely destroyed. Property damage was extensive, and the livelihoods of many thousands more were disrupted for years.
Comparing the Johnstown Flood with the BP oil spill raises the issue of how we compare loss of life to loss of property. Which is worse: 2,200 deaths or $20 billion in lost income?

3. Hurricane Katrina. Without doubt, the proximate cause of the Katrina disaster in New Orleans was the storm itself – a natural event. The overall problem, however, was not so simple. BP has been criticized for failing to anticipate the circumstances under which the Deepwater Horizon might fail and for their lack of any meaningful plan to deal with catastrophic events. The same can be said of the New Orleans levees, which were built by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

New Orleans has been a poorly engineered city for a long time. The land on which most of the city is built has subsided by up to eight feet over the years, largely because the water table was lowered as a result of deliberate drainage. By the time Katrina hit, most of the city was well below sea level. The responsibility for flood control in New Orleans was given to the Army Corps of Engineers after the great flood of 1927. Post-Katrina investigations concluded that the levees were built piecemeal without any real central plan. Many of the structures were improperly designed, poorly built and inadequately maintained. After Hurricane Betsy threatened disaster in 1965, the federal government authorized the “Pontchartrain Hurricane Protection Project” to fix the New Orleans storm protection system. By 2005, nearly 40 years later, the project was still not complete. The Corps of Engineers had no idea how much the system could withstand and simply crossed its fingers every time a storm approached. If a private company had been in charge of the levee system instead of the federal government, the public outcry would have made the current outrage at BP look like a love fest.

Katrina was a true catastrophe. Some 238 people were killed and another 67 went missing. Reconstruction costs are estimated at over $100 billion. Seven million gallons of oil were spilled from 44 damaged facilities. Over a million people were displaced to other cities, such as Baton Rouge and Houston, disrupting those communities as well as the lives of the refugees. The people who stayed in New Orleans suffered from looting, violence and a complete breakdown in government services.

These are just a few examples of environmental disasters that were by any reasonable measure more severe than the BP spill. If we look outside the US, we would find even worse cases. The Soviet Union, for example, diverted water flowing into the huge inland lake in Uzbekistan known as the Aral Sea. The Aral Sea, originally the size of Lake Superior, is now essentially gone, leaving in its wake a dust bowl made toxic by pesticides, fertilizer and nuclear weapons facilities. The Aral Sea fishing industry, which employed 40,000 people and accounted for one-sixth of the Soviet fish catch, is gone, leaving Uzbekistan with nothing of real economic value.

Another example would be China’s Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s – Mao’s attempt to pull China into the modern world by force. Among the many disastrous ideas in this program was the attempt to eliminate sparrows as an agricultural pest. Unfortunately, sparrows eat more insects than seeds, and the destruction of the sparrows led to massive locust infestations that contributed to the starvation deaths of tens of millions of people.

Petroleum has brought enormous benefits to mankind in general and to the US in particular. Oil is abundant, relatively clean and has great performance value. There are lots of agendas swirling around this oil spill. Some, like the desire of Gulf Coast residents to be compensated for their losses, are understandable. Others, like the desire to replace petroleum with costly, underperforming alternatives, are less noble. We’d all be best served, however, by understanding the impacts of the spill rather than overdramatizing the event. If we want to make good policy, analysis will beat hysteria every time.



  1. Very interesting article and point of view. I wish you had a share button!

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