Fukushima Daiichi, March 11, 2011 -- Three nuclear reactors melt down, while explosions and spent fuel fires at the Fukushima power complex on Japan's east coast combine to create a major disaster for public health, environment and Japan's economy. The melt-downs were triggered by a complex chain of events, including loss of coolant and an earthquake and tsunami that killed tens of thousands of people. Health impacts from the Fukushima disaster may be more serious than Chernobyl. The disaster ends the 60 year hope that nuclear power could create safe, cheap power worldwide and stave off accelerating climate change.
Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform, Gulf of Mexico, April 20, 2010 -- An explosion kills 11 and badly injures 9 more workings on this modern drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, off the Louisana coast. Millions of gallons of oil spill and, driven by wind and tides, devastate fragile coastal environments. The incident is similar to the Piper Alpha disaster in the North sea on July 6, 1988, killing 167 men in a fiery explosion. It is also similar to the Ixtoc 1 spill on June 3, 1979 in the Bay of Campeche, spilling three and a half billion barrels (450,000 metric tons) of oil. Another offshore rig incident was the Ocean Ranger, which sank in heavy seas off the Altantic coast of Canada on 15 February 1982 with a loss of 84 crew members. The dangers and costs of recovering oil at extreme depths were highlighted by these incidents.
Coal ash disaster, Tennessee, United States, Dec. 22, 2008 -- Over a billion gallons of coal fly ash sludge spills out of a holding dam near Kinsport, TN. The Tennessee Valley Authority tells consumers that conditions are "probably safe," that they should boil water and that fly ash is similar to gypsum. In reality, the toxic brew contains high levels of carcinogenic compounds and neurotoxins that no amount of boiling will ever remove. The spill is significant as sounding a loud alarm over the long-term health and environmental costs of using coal for electricity.
Exxon Valdez oil spill, Alaska, United States, March 24, 1989 -- An Exxon oil tanker runs aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling 11 million gallons. The incident is just one of thousands of oil spills, but it catalyzed public opinion about the environmental dangers of oil. Wikipedia has a list of the largest spills.
Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Ukraine, April 26, 1986 -- A safety experiment gone wrong, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded, killing approximately 50 people immediately, an estimated 4,000 people over the short term, and exposing over half a million people to high levels of radiation. The worst nuclear disaster in history also had a destabilizing effect on the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and is seen as one of many causes of its breakup in 1991.
Bhopal disaster, India, Dec. 3, 1984 -- Union Carbide Co. fertilizer plant leaks methyl icocyanide in Indian town of Bhopal. 2000 dead, another 8,000 die of chronic effects. The International Medical Commission on Bhopal estimates that upwards of 50,000 people remained partially or totally disabled.
Minimata "disease," Japan, May 1, 1956 -- Dr. Hajime Hosokawa reported an "an unclarified disease of the central nervous system" affecting residents of Kumamoto and Minamata, small towns about 570 miles southwest of Tokyo. Hosokawa soon narrowed the cause of the disease to mercury dumping by the Chisso Corporation, which denied the accusations, continued dumping mercury, and attempted to silence Dr. Hosokawa. In the mid-1970s, the estimate was that 67 people in Minamata had died and another 330 were permanently disabled from the mercury poisoning. The long - term impacts of the disaster included a new worldwide awareness of the severe health impacts that unregulated chemical pollution could cause.
Leaded gasoline, Oct. 29, 1924 -- The public first learns of strange violent insanity and death at refineries owned by Standard Oil (Exxon) and DuPont refineries in New Jersey making tetraethyl lead gasoline additive. Public health expert Alice Hamilton of Harvard University says inventor and Ethyl Corp. head Charles Kettering is "nothing but a murderer." Due to the power of the oil and automotive industries backing leaded gasoline, the octane-boosting additive is used in most gasoline worldwide during the 20th century. It takes until 1986 to ban it in the US and 2000 to ban it in Europe and the rest of the world.
Other events from the timeline
1778 -- India -- An estimated 294 men and 69 women die protecting the forsts in Jodhpur state. The original "tree huggers" were killed by officials trying to cut the forest for building projects. The mass slaughter led to a royal order that prohibited the cutting of any tree in a Bishnoi village. To this day, Bishnoi villages are wooded oases in the otherwise harsh Rajasthan desert.
1830s - 1880s, England -- Living and working conditions in major cities deteriorate in the wake of the industrial revolution and the lack of sanitation or industrial regulation. Most other industrial cities around the world begin to experience similar problems, and many still do.
1889 -- May 31 -- At least 2,209 residents of Johnstown, PA die after a dam on the South Fork of the Little Conemaugh river collapses after heavy rains. "It shows men how they should, or rather how they should not, build their dams and their cities and it seems, also, that it warns them to take thought for their spiritual safety ... Most engineers, and most laymen as well, would not hesitate to say that the responsibilty for the disaster rests upon the designer and builder of the dam," says the New York Times.
1900 -- Wild buffalo population in North America drops to fewer than 40 animals from an estimated 30 million a century beforehand. Most are killed in the years just after the US Civil War as the US Army promotes extermination of the buffalo to move Indians onto reservations.
1908 -- Monongah Mine disaster kills 362 coal miners. Public outrage leads to creation of the US Bureau of Mines in 1910.
1914 -- Sept. 1 -- "Martha," the last passenger pigeon, dies in the Cincinatti Ohio zoo.
1927 -- Five New Jersey women, called "The Radium Girls," file lawsuits against their former employer the U.S. Radium Corp. for negligence in creating dangerous working conditions. All five died of radiation induced cancer within a few years after the suit was settled in 1928.
1928 -- March 12 -- St. Francis Dam gives way in Los Angeles, killing over 500. The dam was built as part of the controversial Owens Valley water project by William Mulholland, chief engineer of the city's water department.
1930 -- Meuse River Valley killer smog incident, Belgium, three day weather inversion in this industrial valley holds in smoke and kills 63, with 6,000 made ill.
1932 -- First lawsuits filed by workers and families affected by Gauley River / Hawks Nest disaster in West Virginia. An estimated 476 died and 2000 were debilitated by silicosis while working for this West Virginia hydroelectric tunnelling project. Most are African American and most bodies are buried without identification or even notification of relatives.
1933 -- Dust Bowl storms begin in the Midwest.
1939 -- St. Louis smog episode. Smog is so thick that lanterns are needed during daylight for a week. The smog episode sparks a crusade by the St. Louis Post Dispatch which, in 1940, is rewarded with the first Pulitzer Prize for what would later be called environmental reporting.
1948 -- Donora, Pennsylvania smog incident. Twenty people died, 600 hospitalized and thousands strickened in this nationally publicized environmental disaster.
1952 -- Dec. 4-8 -- Four thousand people die in the worst of the London "killer fogs." Vehicles use lamps in broad daylight, but smog is so thick that busses run only with a guide walking ahead. By Dec. 8 all transportation except the subway had come to a halt.
1957-58 -- Chelyabinsk-40 nuclear waste explosion in Kyshtym, Russia two million curies spread throughout the region, exposing to radiation over a quarter million people.
1957 -- October -- Fire destroys the core of a plutonium-producing reactor at Britain's Windscale nuclear complex (now named Sellafield) sending clouds of radioactivity into the atmosphere. An official report 20 years later said radiation could have caused dozens of cancer deaths in the vicinity of Liverpool. See Windscale documentary site.
1963 -- 2,500 die in Vajont resevoir disaster, Dolomite mountains 100 km north of Venice. Around 10:30 p.m. on Oct. 9, a massive landslide of 270 million cubic meters of rock fell into the hydroelectric reservoir. The dam did not break, but the wave of water over the dam was high enough, and forceful enough, to entirely destroy the towns downstream.
1969 -- June 22 -- Cuyahoga river bursts into flames 5 stories high from oil and chemical pollution, illuminating the extent of pollution and simultaneously igniting controversy over how much cleanup will be needed.
1969, January 31, -- Santa Barbara oil well blowout off the Santa Barbara coast of California spills 235,000 gallons of oil and covers 30 miles of beach with tar. Well is capped Feb. 8.
1972 --Feb 26 -- Buffalo Creek disaster in West Virginia. Negligent strip mining led to buildup of floodwaters that broke through "tipple" dams, killing 125 people and leaving 4,000 homelss.
1976 -- July 10 -- Chemical explosion in a Milan, Italy suburb of Seveso spreads dioxin, directly injuring about 30 people and causing chloracne, a severe skin disease, in over 300 schoolchildren.. The explosion of trichlorophenol occurred at the Givaudan plant, owned by the Hoffman-LaRoche chemical and drug firm of Switzerland. Two and a half weeks after the gas cloud spread, hundreds of rabbits, birds, cats, dogs and chickens had died in a 170 acre area and many plants had withered. The accident is compared to a similar incident in Derbyshire, England, in 1969.
1976 -- June 5 -- Catastrophic failure of Grand Teton Dam in Idaho, causing 14 deaths and millions of dollars worth of damage. Investigations later blame the design and lack of monitoring.
1977 -- Oct. 13 -- Alllied Chemical Company and state of Virginia settle lawsuit over extensive Kepone contamination of James River for $5 million. The settlement also included the establishment of the Virginia Environmental Endowment with an $8-million contribution.
1978 -- March 16 -- Amoco Cadiz wrecks off the coast of France and loses 68 million gallons / 1.3 million barrels (six times the amount of the Exxon Valdez spill) with over $2 billion estimated damage. The oil slick covered 110 miles of coastline by March 29.
1978 -- Robert Bullard begins investigating Triana, Alabama region where DDT contaminated a stream. His report, called "Cancer Alley," marks the emergence of the environmental justice movement.
1979 -- March 28 -- Three Mile Island nuclear power plant loses coolant and partially melts down. This is a telling blow for the nuclear power industry, already under fire for safety problems in other plants, construction cost overruns and lack of planning for radioactive waste disposal.
1979 -- IXTOC I oil well blowout, Bay of Campeche, Mexico
1982 -- December -- EPA study confirms dangerous levels of dioxin had threatened the health of residents in a small Missouri town called Times Beach.
1986 --November 1 -- Chemical spill in Basel, Switzerland creates massive fish kill in Rhine River through Germany, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The spill occurs when a fire breaks out in a chemical warehouse owned by Sandoz S.A. Fire fighters hose down the blaze and, in the process, wash tons of toxic chemicals into the Rhine. Swiss authorities did not issue timely notices that could have led to containment downstream. Contamination cuts of drinking and irrigation water for millions of people and kills half a million fish. Despite international legal agreements, Switzerland was not required to pay for the damage. Sandoz was held liable.
1988 -- Beaches close along the US East Coast due to contaminated medical waste. Few realize that pollution had closed beaches before in the 1920s and 30s.
1988 -- Dec. 22 -- Assassination of Chico Mendez, leader of Brazil's rubber tappers (Taperos) movement to save the rain forest.
1989 -- February -- Chinese journalists led by Dai Quing of Guangming Daily publish Yangtze! Yangtze! criticizing China's Three Gorges dam project.
1990 -- War in Kuwait and Iraq creates environmental disaster with oil spills and depleted uranium bullets.
1992 -- Supertanker Braer spills 26 million gallons of crude oil in the Hebrides islands
1995 -- Nov. 10. Nigerian government executes journalist and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other environmentalists. They had been active in fighting pollution from Shell Oil Co. in the Ogani homeland.
2000 -- Jan 30 -- Aurul goldmine dam near Baia Mare, Romania overflows releasing cyanide-laced slurry into the Danube River.
2000 -- October 11 -- The most serious US environmental disaster east of the Mississippi River. Over 300 million gallons of thick, black coal slurry sludge is released whan a Massey Energy Co. impoundment dam collapses near Inez (Martin County), Kentucky
2001 -- Sept. 11 -- World Trade Center and Pentagon attacked, killing 2,973 and releasing thousands of tons of toxic debris.
2002 -- February 25 - A jury in Anniston, Alabama ruled that Monsanto Chemical company was responsible for polluting the town with tons of toxic PCBs.
2003 -- March 21 -- Invasion of Iraq by US and British forces leads to widespread oilfield burning and other war-related environmental problems.
2004, Feb. -- A climate change report comissioned by the Pentagon sparks European concern when it discusses possible future cataclysms.
2004 - Nov. 8 -- Rapid climate change is occurring in the Arctic, according to 300 scientists who worked for four years on the international Arctic Council.
2005 -- China - An explosion in a Jilin Petrochemical Co. refinery leads to the release of 100 tons of toxic chemicals (esp. benzene and nitrobenezne) into the Songhua River.
2007 -- Arctic sea ice is far smaller than ever before with a loss of a million square miles, a finding that "shatters previous records," according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Colorado.
2009 -- December 18 -- Copenhagen -- The first decade of the 21st century ends with the collapse of climate negotiations in Copenhagen. US President Barack Obama announces a non-binding agreement between the U.S., China, Brazil, South Africa and India. But representatives from 193 countries failed to reach a consensus on replacement for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol emissions treaty, set to expire in 2012.