The fallout from the Louisiana oil rig explosion is continuing to be horrendous, and efforts to stop the damage aren't looking promising. But this isn't the worst fossil fuel disaster we've ever had. Here are 10 of the worst.
Disclaimer: It's almost impossible to quantify or define "worst" in this context. Number of lives lost? Amount of environmental damage? Sheer volume of oil spilled, or coal ignited? There's no way to be completely scientific about it. We attempted to compile the most horrifying, or objectively largest, disasters, and also to represent the different types of disasters that have befallen our fossil fuel industry. Feel free to chime in in comments with your own "favorite" disasters.
And two of the biggest disasters stem from Iraq's actions in the 1990 Gulf War — so they were intentional, but still qualify for a place on the list.
Largest Oil Spill Of All Time: Really, this list could be mostly oil spills. There have been so many. You only have to look at the Wikipedia page to see that enough oil has been splashed in the water to keep all our cars running for decades. The largest, in terms of volume of oil, was the Gulf War Oil Spill, in which Iraq opened the valves at its oil terminal and dumped oil into the Gulf, in an attempt to keep U.S. forces from landing. The resulting slick was 4,242 square miles, and five inches thick. It's between five and 27 times bigger than the Exxon Valdez spill. The largest accidental oil spill, in gallons, was Ixtoc I in Mexico, which dumped half a million tons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico and polluted 162 miles of U.S. beaches. A rare sea turtle's natural habitat was flooded, and the endangered turtles had to be airlifted to safety. Honorable mention also has to go to the Atlantic Empress, a Greek oil tanker that managed to be involved in two separate massive oil spills.
Worst mass poisoning: In 2008, a retaining wall in the Kingston Fossil Plant's ash pond broke, spilling 5.6 million cubic yards of wet coal ash. Studies suggest this type of coal ash can contain high levels of heavy metal and carcinogens, even though the EPA said it wouldn't be harmful unless you ingested it. The stuff was relatively easy to clean up as long as it remained in liquid form, but then there was the problem of it drying out. One local resident said: "This is not a thin coating of ash," she said. "These are boulders. There's one in our cove that's probably the size of our home." According to CNN, there were tons of illnesses in the area. As one scientist puts it, "It's like dumping the periodic table into everyone's drinking water." (Photo by AP/Wade Payne)
Worst oil fire. The Kuwait Oil Fires of 1991 almost certainly win in this category. The defeated Iraqi army, retreating from Kuwait, set nearly 700 oil wells on fire, and they burned for eight months, consuming an estimated six million barrels of oil daily. Smoke from the Oil Fires dominated the weather throughout the Persian Gulf during 1991, filling the skies of cities as far away as Dhahran and Riyadh with smoke and carbon fallout. (The image above is the smoke and dust storms over the Persian Gulf, via NASA/Getty.) Some people also believe there's a connection between this disaster and the mysterious illness known as Gulf War Syndrome. But there's also a strong contender in Jaipur, India, where five people died and over 200 were injured after a fire at an oil depot. Half a million people had to be evacuated. The fire broke out in a petrol tank, and the explosions were heard 20 miles away. (Photo by AP/Greg Gibson).
Worst beach spill of all time. This is a hard one to decide, because so many oil spills have caused so much damage to the environment. But the worst is probably the Amoco Cadiz, which spilled 223,000 tons of oil off the coast of Brittany in 1978. It was the largest spill in history at the time, as bad weather broke up the ship before any oil could be pumped out of the wreck. Oil reached 200 miles of coastline, including the beaches of 76 towns in Brighton. To make matters worse, the bad weather thoroughly mixed the oil and water, forming a revolting kind of "mousse." The incident killed 20,000 sea birds and 9,000 tons of oysters and sickened fish — a major problem considering the prevalence of the fishing and tourism industries in the areas. Damages were estimated at $250 million at the time. But the Exxon Valdez oil spill is not to be dismissed either — an article today says fishermen are still struggling with the impact of it 21 years later. (Photo by AP.)
Worst botched attempt to fix an oil spill. This is a picture of a sea bird being "de-oiled" in 1996 — nearly 30 years after the 1967 disaster in which the Torrey Canyon, an early supertanker, hit a reef in Cornwall. That's right — birds covered with oil were still washing up 30 years later. What's entertaining about this story, though, is the way the authorities decided to deal with the situation.They decided to bomb the crashed tanker using "petrol and napalm bombs." You read that right: They dropped napalm on a crashed oil tanker. Which ended up releasing tons more oil. Here's a quote from a recent BBC article, in the "understatement of the century" division:
The bombing of the ship 40 years ago was done with the best of intentions, but looking at what happened, it really was about the most disastrous things they could have done.
No. Really? (Photo by Martin Cavaney/AP)
Worst gas explosion. This is really a tough one to judge — but the winner might be the 1937 natural gas leak which blew up the London School in New London, Texas, killing 295 students and becoming the official worst disaster in a school building, ever. Also impressive in this category: the Cleveland East Ohio Gas Explosion killed 130 people and destroyed a square mile. A tank car of liquified petrolium gas exploded a few days after a train derailment in Waverly, Tennessee killing both the fire chief and the police chief, and causing $1.8 million in damages.
Also, a natural gas explosion in Edison, NJ created a 60-foot-deep crater and sent a fireball 300 feet up into the air that could be seen in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. It was designated a federal disaster area — but there was only one death: a heart attack. This disaster is the reason you have to call a hotline before digging a trench, to make sure you're not hitting a pipeline.
And in 1927, workmen were trying to find a leak on a gas storage container — so they decided to use a lit torch to look for it. The container actually floated up in the air, exploded, and then rained fire on the surrounding area, killing 28 people and injuring hundreds more. (Photo by Val Mazzucca/AP).
Worst rocket fuel explosion. After the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up, the shuttle program was put on hold — but the government kept ordering rocket fuel at the same quantities as before. That meant a huge amount of fuel components built up in storage. So when a spark from a welder hit a Nevada storage structure, the resulting fireball was like the wrath of God. The equivalent of 1000 tons of TNT, it registered as a 3.5 on the Richter scale from as far away as Colorado. My favorite part is the 911 call transcript:
Dispatcher: Fire department.
Westerfield: Emergency. We need the fire department, all you can get here. Immediately.
Dispatcher: What's the problem?
Westerfield: Oh, we've got… everything's on fire.
Luckily, there was only one fatality.
Longest lasting coal/gas fires. There's nothing to stop an underground coal fire, once it gets going — it can burn for as long as there's fuel to feed it. New Castle, Colorado's coal mine fire has been burning since 1899, and shows no sign of slowing down. (As a tourist guide (PDF) puts it, "Prominent earthen scars and occasional steam mark the still-smoldering underground mines today." And as we've mentioned a few times, the nearly abandoned town of Centralia, PA has had an enormous coal fire roaring under the ground since 1962, forcing the town's evacuation due to subsidence and toxic smoke. There's also the "Door To Hell," in Turkmenistan, where geologists decided to ignite a cavern full of natural gas that they found in 1971. They thought it would just burn for a few days, but it's burned ever since. There are also some coal fires in Germany that have burned for hundreds of years, and Australia's Burning Mountain is estimated to have burned for 6,000 years — although that doesn't really count as a human-made disaster.
Worst coal mine cave-ins. Back in the day, this might have been the most common form of fossil fuel disasters, and a lot of the miners who were killed were children. The Benxihu Colliery in China claimed 212 lives per every million miners, and one explosion, in 1942, killed 1,549 miners in a single day. Also terrifying: France's Courrières mine disaster, which killed 1,099 miners after an explosion of coal dust in 1906. From eyewitness accounts, it sounds like being trapped in hell — the 600 miners who made it to the surface were covered with burns and suffering from the effects of mine gases. Another 13 miners survived underground for 20 days by eating all the other miners' food and then eating one of the mine horses. The mine company called off the search after only a few days, to help keep the fire from spreading to the other coal seams.
Additional reporting by Mary Ratliff and Kelly Faircloth.
Top image by Getty Images.