Just how bad is the Deepwater Horizon oil spill? With a significant amount of oil still flowing through deep undersea currents, out of sight, the consequences will not be known for some time. Some are even wondering if the spill heralds the apocalypse. In fact, the incident that began with an explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig is not even the worst oil spill in the history of the Gulf of Mexico, which was already one of the most oil-polluted bodies of water in the world. Despite its untold economic and environmental impacts, it likely will not inflict the human toll of the world’s ugliest environmental catastrophes.
To assign the title of “worst disaster” would be to risk trivializing tragedy: all environmental disasters are terrible and worth remembering. But as we consume the well-justified avalanche of news about the spill in the gulf, let’s do so with a dose of context. Here’s how the Deepwater Horizon spill stacks up against previous environmental accidents:
Bhopal, India, Gas Leak
On a December morning in 1984, a cloud of toxic gas leaked from a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, killing more than 3,000 people in a span of days and poisoning hundreds of thousands more in the years to come. The Indian government’s count of fatalities caused by the accident stands at about 15,000, making it the deadliest man-made environmental disaster in history.
The Deepwater Horizon spill has, at the moment, killed 11 oil rig workers who died in the explosion on April 20. It is also expected to devastate marine life in wide swaths of the Gulf of Mexico. As scientists told NEWSWEEK’s Sharon Begley, the economic and environmental impact of undersea oil plumes could reach far beyond what the toxic cloud in India did to Bhopal, a city of about 800,000. While the initial cloud of gas at Bhopal killed livestock and stripped trees bare in and around the densely populated slums that immediately surrounded the plant, the worst environmental impact of the explosion in Bhopal was more nefarious: the BBC returned to the site 20 years later and found dangerous chemicals stored haphazardly at the former factory. Groundwater was contaminated to levels known to cause serious health problems, but locals were (and apparently still are) drinking water they believed to be toxic because they had no other choice.
Like Union Carbide (now owned by Dow Chemical), BP and its corporate partners will face billions of dollars in legal claims. This month, eight former Union Carbide officers were convicted of criminal negligence.
London’s ‘Great Smog,’ 1952
For four days in December 1952, a thick, acid-infused smog engulfed London like an overturned saucer. Stagnant air trapped fumes from coal stoves, gas-burning cars, and industrial emissions. Day turned to darkness, and visibility dropped, at times, to a mere foot. An estimated 4,000 people died in a single month from the immediate effects of the toxic air on their respiratory system, while 8,000 additional deaths were later attributed to the smog. Sulfur dioxide in the air was believed to be the main culprit.
Much of what is known about this awful spell of air pollution documents its devastating impact on humans—written accounts make little mention of long-term environmental harm. That makes it difficult to measure against the catastrophe unfolding in the gulf, where entire ecosystems are at risk but where human victims will probably feel the worst impact in their pockets, not their lungs. The smog did spur the British Parliament to pass the Clean Air Act, allowing authorities to control the use of coal fuel in certain areas to mitigate the risk of future smog.
Ixtoc Blowout, 1979
News reports on the 1979 blowout of an undersea oil well off the Gulf of Mexico seem all too familiar today. There was a failure of the “blowout preventer,” an undersea fail-safe device that is supposed to close off a gushing pipe. There were frustrated reports about the Mexican government vastly underestimating the volume of oil gushing from the seabed, much like the lowball guesses from BP in April.
Day after day for a span of 10 months, a torrent of oil rushed into the Gulf of Mexico after the initial explosion near the Yucatan Peninsula. The spill was checked only in part by a cap that was lowered over the leak to siphon off a portion of the flow. After four months an oil slick had covered about half of Texas’s 370-mile gulf shoreline, devastating tourism. Only by drilling two relief wells to connect to the initial hole, then pumping mud and concrete into the gushing pipe could Petroleos Mexicanos, or PeMex, Mexico’s national oil company, stop the leak.
“The accident does suggest that blowout prevention equipment is not designed to handle the worst emergencies,” The New York Times wrote in an April 1980 editorial after the leak was finally capped. “Could a blowout in American waters be quickly capped and cleaned up?”
By the easiest measure—volume of oil spilled—PeMex’s Ixtoc I oil well was far worse than the Deepwater Horizon well: 140 million gallons of oil poured out of the Mexican well, compared to the estimated 94.2 million gallons that could escape from the well near Louisiana by mid-August, when a relief well is expected to be complete. (The worst oil spill in history occurred in 1991, when the Iraqi army ripped apart Kuwait’s oil infrastructure and released more than 252 million gallons during the Persian Gulf War. The Exxon Valdez crash in 1989 released 10.9 million gallons.)
But unlike Deepwater Horizon, the Ixtoc I disaster occurred in 150 feet of water and a fortunate turn in winds and currents mitigated its impact on the coastline. Today, researchers using submersibles continue to detect massive plumes of oil rising from the depths. No one has ever observed what happens when oil gushes from the sea floor 5,000 feet down, and residents along the entire gulf coast are still nervously awaiting what currents and winds Mother Nature has in store this summer.
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Explosion, 1986
In April 1986 an explosion at the core of a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl power station released more than 50 tons of radioactive material into the atmosphere above Ukraine. About 350,000 people had to be evacuated from the area, leaving villages and an entire city, Prypriat, abandoned. Estimates of deaths and radiation-related illnesses from the incident vary widely: a United Nations study found that by 2005 there had been 59 deaths directly related to the incident, while Ukrainian officials have said that during the cleanup following the blast, more than 4,000 people died and 70,000 were disabled by radiation-related illness.
Deepwater Horizon’s best historical parallel might indeed be Chernobyl. That accident set back nuclear power in Europe much as the Deepwater Horizon spill has torpedoed momentum toward what was to be an expansion of deep-ocean drilling in the U.S. “We were just getting to the point where we could think about talking about drilling off parts of Florida, off the Atlantic coast,” said Byron King, an oil analyst with Agora Financial and contributor to The Daily Reckoning. “Within moments of the news hitting the wires, people were like … ‘Not off my coast.’ ”