France Oil Spill – March 17, 1978

The volume of this oil spill was more than six times greater than the Exxon Valdez spill. Lack of clear authority regarding corrective action resulted in almost all of its sixty-nine million gallons of oil being spilled.

On March 17, 1978, a supertanker, the Amoco Cadiz, was stranded off the northwest coast of France when it lost its steering ability in a storm and ran on to rocks. The entire cargo of sixty-nine million gallons of crude oil spilled into the sea, covering neighboring beaches with one-foot-deep oil and causing enormous environmental damage. The oil spill was more than six times the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

In the late 1960s and the 1970s, the average size of oil tankers increased to six times their traditional tonnage as more and more oil was being shipped from the Middle East to Europe and North America. Economies of scale demanded supertankers especially when local conflicts around the Red Sea blocked passage through the Suez Canal and ships had to travel all the way round the Cape of Good Hope. These huge tankers, each able to carry more than 200,000 tons of oil, gave rise to major environmental concerns. Ports were not accustomed to handle them and a single accident could be catastrophic.

The first shock of the supertanker age came to Britain in 1967 when the Torrey Canyon, with thirty-eight million gallons of oil, went aground in the English Channel and lost most of its cargo, flooding the entire south coast of England with black masses of oil. It was the worst tragedy that the nation had ever experienced apart from war times. After all hopes of salvaging the rest of the ship’s oil had to be abandoned the British government bombed the wreck, a move that ignited and so burned up some of the remaining oil.

Four years after the Torrey Canyon, two large oil tankers, the Arizona Standard and the Oregon, collided beneath the Golden Gate Bridge and 840,000 gallons of crude oil was spilled into the bay, spoiling beaches and killing thousands of birds just as had happened with the Torrey Canyon. This accident happened in the middle of the night and, though radar equipment was installed and working on both ships, little attention was paid by the ships’ captains to their positions relative to each other. The Arizona Standard was entering the bay while the Oregon was leaving.

The shock and the resultant destruction to the bay’s wildlife woke up the authorities to the need for proper management of large ship traffic. Before long it became evident to shipping authorities around the world that a new day had dawned and new measures would be needed both to monitor navigation and to prepare for coping with potentially massive oil spills. There was little time to lose. Within twenty years of the bay accident five supertankers were plying the world’s oceans, each carrying enormous quantities of crude oil:

Amoco Cadiz 1978 carrying 69 million gallons of crude oil
Gulf of Mexico 1979 carrying 140 million gallons of crude oil
South Africa 1983 carrying 79 million gallons of crude oil
Exxon Valdez 1989 carrying 11 million gallons of crude oil
Gulf Cruises 1991 carrying 240 million gallons of crude oil
Uzbekistan 1992 carrying 88 million gallons of crude oil

Environmentalists’ worst fears were realized when the Amoco Cadiz ran aground off the northwest coast of France, near Portsall, in 1978. It was the world’s worst ever oil spill up to that time. The previous two accidents involved much smaller volumes of oil. While six tankers travel along this coast daily, nothing at this scale had ever been imagined. The ship was a couple of miles off the coast when its steering system failed and the vessel drifted in heavy seas on to rocks. Weather conditions in this part of the Atlantic Ocean are usually stormy and March 17 was no exception. Having lost control, the ship was at the mercy of the waves and before long it broke in two releasing all of its cargo of 230,000 tons of crude oil into the sea.

When the captain sent out a distress signal, a German tugboat that was nearby responded and its captain offered to tow the tanker away from the shore and farther out to sea, but at a price. That offer was made around the middle of the day and a three-way telephone conversation soon followed involving the captains of the tanker and tugboat and an official of Amoco, the ship’s owner, in New York. The price was $100,000, on the assumption that the situation was one of assistance, not emergency rescue. If it were the latter, costs do not apply as any neighboring vessel is under obligation to assist a ship in distress. The debate went on for twelve hours with the Amoco representative refusing to agree to any payment, insisting instead that the ship was in distress.

French authorities were justifiably angry as they watched the ship drift closer and closer to the shore. They knew that the argument over costs was quite irrelevant as the price being charged was far less than the value of the cargo, yet they felt they were helpless to do anything. The French government wanted to take the Amoco official to court on charges of criminal negligence but later dropped that plan as a more general legal case on responsibility for the spill entered the courts. Amoco’s long-standing claim that it feels responsible for all environmental concerns and the welfare of the local people wherever it operates did not make much sense to French officials as they watched the tragedy unfold. They saw the tanker finally breakup on the shore and discharge its entire cargo of oil into the sea.

Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit this coast annually and the economic impact of losing them weighed heavily on the minds of the local business community. Every effort was made to keep oil away from the shore but there was little experience to deal with such a large volume of oil. Skimmers did not work in the choppy seas, typical of this coast, and oil splashed over the tops of booms. Disillusionment with detergents in other spills persuaded them to avoid that approach. The French government thought of bombing the tanker in order to set it on fire and consume the oil still on-board but that was abandoned because the black fumes would damage crops and farms. The only effective course left was to clean the beaches after the oil washed ashore. In France, that job is always assigned to the army.

All along the two hundred miles of coast soldiers used the only tools that would work—shovels. Oil-soaked sand was bagged and carried away while village fire trucks washed soil from rock surfaces. It was frustrating work as beaches would at times be covered with fresh sand, giving the impression that it had been cleaned while still full of oil underneath. Oil would sometimes accumulate to a depth of four inches in harbors, then suddenly be blown out to sea when the wind changed. Approximately 30,000 seabirds died from the oil and more than 200,000 tons of fish were also lost. Many communities along the coast lost their sources of income for more than the year of cleanup as shellfish habitats had to be rebuilt.

Questions were asked in the wake of the disaster. Why did the French navy not respond to calls for assistance? The navy’s tugs were closer to the stricken vessel than the one that did offer to help. Why did the ship sail within six miles of land even though international agencies such as the United Nations recommend a minimum distance of fifteen miles from shore? Was the ship seaworthy? As often happens in shipping, the vessel, Amoco Cadiz, was registered in an African country in order to gain tax and insurance advantages for the owner. However, when the claimants finally sought damages from the owner, a U.S. judge decided that the oil company was guilty. The company was considered negligent on several counts including failure to train the crew adequately. The ninety French communities that had suffered most were awarded $85 million, about one tenth of their claim for $750 million. For the 400,000 people concerned, that amounted to less than $2,000 per person.

In 1999, the French government arranged for divers to go down and examine the wreck of the Amoco Cadiz. It had measured two hundred feet longer than the Titanic and five times more capacious and divers discovered that much of the frame of the original was still in place. The hull stood 150 feet above the sea floor. The divers found the ship’s sides torn in several places, creating underwater sculptures of steel. There was no evidence of the oil spill and the seabed seemed quite clean. Swarms of fish covered the ship and each broken or twisted piece of rusty steel served as a potential breeding site. Flatfish like plaice, shoals of anchovies, and sand eels were common. The main bulk of the ship was far from being stationary. It moved gently under pressure from the ocean swell.


Love Canal Contamination – New York – August 2, 1978

Major health problems arose from a new subdivision on an old industrial site No adequate examination of an old waste dump adjoining Niagara Falls, before a new subdivision was developed, led to a large number of homes being declared uninhabitable.

In the late 1950s, a former industrial site in New York State near Niagara Falls was taken over by the Niagara Falls School Board and an elementary school was built there. Soon after, hundreds of families took up residence in the area. On August 2, 1978, a succession of health hazards arising from old toxic wastes culminated in the evacuation of the whole neighborhood.

Love Canal, so-named after the site’s first developer, William Love, was one of the nation’s worst waste sites. Its history goes back to Love’s dreams at the end of the nineteenth century to build a model community. He was sure that the location, next to the Niagara River, would be very popular. He began construction on a canal that would bypass the cataracts and the falls, linking the Niagara River in this way with Lake Ontario. Hydroelectricity would be produced locally for his new community and the canal would provide transportation. His dreams never came to fruition and his canal was never finished, mainly because of new developments in the transmission of electricity that enabled factories to be located at a distance from their sources of power. Love’s canal remained as a ditch 60 feet wide and 1,300 feet in length.

The site remained a recreational area for many years until it was purchased by the City of Niagara Falls in the 1920s and used as a dump for municipal waste. In the 1940s, the Hooker Electrochemical Company bought the area around the canal, set up a factory on it, and proceeded to add its chemical wastes to the canal. There were few homes in the area at this time and the existence of a bed of impermeable clay five feet below the surface seemed to the Hooker Company to justify its suitability for the dumping of chemical wastes. The company felt that the clay barrier would prevent any toxic materials from reaching the wider water channels. Over the period 1942–1954 about 25,000 tons of chemical wastes, partly in sealed drums, were dumped into the canal. The City of Niagara continued to dump waste there too throughout this period of time.

No one knew at the time but later it was discovered that one component of the Hooker Company’s waste was dioxin, one of the world’s most carcinogenic chemicals, the one that had caused widespread destruction in Sevesco, Italy, two years earlier. The quantity of dioxin deposited in the Love Canal could have been as high as 120 pounds, a huge amount given its toxic strength. In 1954, the Hooker Company sold the land to the Niagara Falls School Board for the token price of one dollar so that it could build a new school there. Numbers of people had been settling in the area and a school was needed. As part of the agreement of sale, the Hooker Company had the School Board accept responsibility for any chemical wastes deposited on the site, leaving Hooker free from any future liability. The completion of the school provided an incentive for more people to move to the seventy-acre subdivision.

Both school and residences were built on top of the old canal, now a grave for thousands of tons of poisonous wastes. By the early 1970s there were eight hundred single-family homes and 250 apartments there and complaints about toxic wastes that had been surfacing since 1954 caught the attention of both Canadian and New York State governments. Unusually heavy rain and snow falls in 1975 and 1976 raised groundwater levels and things from the old canal surfaced. Fifty-five-gallon drums appeared and oily substances carrying bad odors began to appear around the homes of residents. Complaints exploded, with fears being expressed by everyone both for their health and the risk that their property values were about to plummet. By late 1977, one member of Congress and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) became involved and the latter began to examine the basements of the homes closest to the canal.

Hazardous chemicals were found and the New York Department of Health declared the Love Canal area a threat to human health and ordered the fencing of the old landfill site. The school was closed and evacuation of pregnant women and young children began from many of the homes. Health records collected over the previous two years were brought forward and examined. They suggested alarming trends but the accuracy of their links with such local factors as the wastes from the canal could not be established scientifically. The seriousness of the conditions however demanded action. Many of the children born between 1974 and 1978 had birth defects. Miscarriage rates had increased three hundred percent in the same period. Now, as federal and state agencies began to examine the area minutely, pesticides and traces of dioxin were found in the soil. The result was extreme agitation among all the residents.

The community came together and demanded action to deal with the crisis. They finally secured it from Health Commissioner Whalen in Albany who, on August 2, 1978, declared a health emergency, a great and imminent peril to the general public at Love Canal. Whalen recommended that residents avoid using their basements and not eat food grown in their gardens. The earlier moves, fencing off the landfill site and evacuating children and pregnant women, were immediately extended. About 240 homes bordering the canal were purchased by the state with a view to the permanent relocation of those living in them. At the same time, remedial work to contain the wastes from the canal were launched. All of this, laudable as it was, left large numbers of other homes still bordering the canal. Pressure increased from residents for action to protect all who were endangered.

Two developments increased the pressure for more action. Within three months, additional quantities of dioxin were found, this time at some distance west of the canal. The second surprise was the effects of the remedial measures being undertaken. Instead of containing the wastes and limiting their influence the excavation work became accessible to runoff and unexpected quantities flowed into nearby sewers. More homes were purchased by the state and the occupants removed to a new place. About this time intense political debate surfaced, involving local and state authorities and federal agencies, all in relation to how much of the area could be retained for residence. The state concluded that the residential perimeter of the canal was all that need be evacuated. Residents did not agree. They launched legal action and secured the right of temporary relocation from a wider zone.

Meanwhile, the quality of life for remaining residents deteriorated. Homes that had been abandoned and were now separated from the rest of the area by a chain-link fence became a focus for vandals and thieves. Burglaries and fires were common. A further negative factor was a new study of chromosomes in the blood of Love Canal residents by the EPA indicating significant damage. Public protests broke out. On one occasion, federal officials from the EPA were held captive for several hours. Finally, in May of 1980, almost two years after the dramatic events of August 2, 1978, President Carter declared a federal emergency in the Love Canal area, thus clearing the way for the relocation of families still resident in those districts that were farther away from the canal.

Following the declaration of a federal emergency, New York’s Governor Carey created a new agency, the Love Canal Area Revitalization Agency. It was given the task of restoring things to livable status. Federal money was provided for a thorough cleanup of all toxic wastes. Abandoned homes were removed and intense decontamination work began. By May of 1982 the EPA was convinced that the area was habitable and gradually, over the years that followed, plans were advanced for resettlement. The Hooker Company, by that time known as the Occidental Petroleum Company, despite earlier agreements, was persuaded to carry some of the costs involved. In 1996, over two hundred homes beside the old Love Canal were sold to new occupants. The Love Canal was once more a flourishing community. Despite all of this good work, the history of the canal is not likely to be forgotten. It is a silent reminder of the dangers that can lie in the ground beneath our homes and remain undetected for decades.

The tragic story of Bhopal in India, an environmental disaster, shook the world six years after Love Canal and yet again, two years after Bhopal, in a European country, human error led to a disastrous ruination of life in and near the Rhine River. In November of 1986 a fire broke out in a Sandoz storehouse near Basel, Switzerland. The storehouse contained more than a thousand tons of one hundred different chemicals. The majority of these chemicals were destroyed by the fire but twenty tons entered the Rhine River, destroying life for over two hundred miles.

The fire had been spotted by a patrol officer shortly after midnight. He saw flames shooting upward from one warehouse in the Sandoz Chemical Company’s factory. Many thousands of gallons of water were used in the five hours it took to extinguish the blaze and all of this water, laced with all kinds of toxic chemicals poured into the Rhine River. Virtually the full length of this major European river lay before this stream of poisoned water, all the way to the sea and to all the places en route.

The Rhine River runs through the most populated and most industrialized part of Europe and over most of the twentieth century its pristine waters were so contaminated that its aquatic organisms almost completely disappeared. There are fifty million people living on or very near the river. Things came to a head during the years of World War II as armies crossed the river, further degrading its waters and life forms. Then in 1950 five countries, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands, and Switzerland, decided to do something about the problem. They formed the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine.

For some time it had little success. The money needed to clear up the river was unavailable and neither was there the political pressure to make the problem a high priority. It was not until the 1970s when the sorry state of the river began to make news all over the world, crippling Europe’s tourist industry, that billions of dollars began to come in from the nations bordering the Rhine. Pollution controls on industries and cities were tightened and strictly enforced. Industrial and population growth increased concurrently but nevertheless the efforts of the reformers made significant gains and several organisms began to appear.

In summary, it took eight years to restore the Rhine to its former health. The river had been destroyed in one day as the devastating pollution from Basel moved down the river. For three hundred miles the stream of toxic water brought death to the river. Firefighters at the scene of the fire had tried to contain the runoff water but a containment wall collapsed and thirty tons of poisonous chemicals were dumped into the water. There were dyes, herbicides, pesticides, and mercury in the toxic soup. The effects were felt all the way to the sea and they were catastrophic. The Commission felt that everything it had accomplished was destroyed.

Sheep that drank from the river got sick and died. Dead fish were everywhere. Scientists predicted it would take at least twenty years for a recovery. It was the worst case of chemical contamination ever in a European river. The enormity of the tragedy created a sense of urgency among the signatories to the Commission and raised public support to a new height. To take advantage of it a goal was set, the recovery of a salmon population that would thrive all the way from the sea to Basel. This goal was to be achieved by the year 2000 and public relations campaigns were launched all over Europe. First tangible results came as early as 1990. Salmon were found to be spawning in tributaries of the Rhine at points 150 miles upstream.


Alaska Oil Spill – March 24, 1989

From the moment an oil tanker arrived at the port of Valdez to load oil, every aspect of the operation had to be carefully watched to ensure a safe exit for the fully loaded ship. In this case several necessary procedures were ignored.

On March 24, 1989, the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on a small island in Prince William Sound. In the days that followed, the ship spilled almost eleven million gallons of Alaskan crude oil into the water. The oil coated shorelines along the sound, and killed hundreds of harbor seals and otters, and thousands of seabirds.

At Prudhoe Bay on the north coast of Alaska large deposits of oil and gas began to be intensively exploited in the late 1960s. By 1977 a nine hundred- mile long pipeline was completed, bringing oil to ports on the south coast where the milder climate permitted all year round operations. From the moment the first big tanker arrived at Valdez, a principal terminal for loading oil, there were environmental concerns. The ship channels along this coast are narrow and rocky and weather conditions are often bad. To make matters worse the tankers in service since 1977 were almost all old, with single hulls, not the double hulls that would be prudent in such stormy seas. The Exxon Valdez had a single hull.

Oil is shipped from Valdez to refineries in Washington state and other places along the west coast as well as to Hawaii. The volume transported is huge. Alaska is the second biggest U.S. producer of oil, after Texas, and accounts for one quarter of the nation’s supplies. It is not surprising therefore that people were greatly concerned when Alaska’s oil first came on stream. Some spills occurred in the years between 1977 and 1989 but the Exxon Valdez accident became the villain that focused the anger of merchants and environmentalists alike. Fishing is a major industry all along the southern coast of Alaska and the amount of destruction to that resource was immense.

The actual volume of oil that was spilled, though very large, was not nearly as big as other spills. The Amoco Cadiz accident in France, a little over a year before the Exxon Valdez, was more than six times bigger. The Gulf spill, two years after the Alaskan spill, was the world’s worst and was far bigger than Amoco Cadiz and Exxon Valdez combined. The unique problem surrounding the Exxon Valdez spill is the location. In the colder northern waters of Alaska, contamination lingers. The ocean takes a long time to absorb oil and every day or delay means death to many forms of marine life. The damage from the spill took years to eradicate and even after twelve years persistent problems remained to be tackled.

The Exxon Valdez arrived at Valdez in the evening of March 22 1989. It was a big ship, longer than three football fields, able to carry more than fifty million gallons of oil. The tough work began early the next morning when the crew had to haul the delivery hoses from the oil terminal and start loading the cargo tanks. Water in the ballast tanks had to be released in matched quantities simultaneously in order to maintain the right stress levels within the ship. All the essential work was finished by eight o’clock in the evening and the crew was very tired. Federal regulations require that every member of a crew be given at least six hours of off-duty time within the twelve hours that precede departure. This rule was ignored because the company wanted to get the oil to market as quickly as possible. It was the first of several errors.

By nine o’clock, only one hour after the ship was loaded, the Exxon Valdez was underway, guided by a pilot for the first few miles. Captain Hazelwood and his Chief Mate Kunkel were on the bridge with the pilot. Half an hour later the second of a series of errors occurred. In spite of standard guidelines requiring two officers to be on the bridge, Captain Hazelwood retired to his cabin for an hour and a half and shortly afterward his Chief Mate left to get some sleep. He was awakened two and a half hours later by the noise of the ship hitting the rocks. All this time, from nine o’clock to just after midnight, various people took turns on the bridge to let others catch some sleep. Shortly after eleven o’clock, in view of the arrival of large quantities of ice from the Columbia Glacier on the west side of Valdez Arm, Hazelwood requested and was given permission to alter his normal course to avoid the ice.

What happened next is not clear. Hazelwood went back to his cabin again after giving orders to make course changes to avoid the ice. Several people were involved in carrying out these changes. Someone must have made a wrong turn because at one point a lookout shouted that the ship was on the wrong side of a navigation buoy. A radar station that normally monitors all departing ships until they are clear of the narrowest part of Valdez Arm had recently been downgraded as a cost-saving measure. It was unable to see the Exxon Valdez in those critical moments when it took the wrong turn and ran into an island. It may be that Hazelwood was unaware that the radar station did not see him and was counting on it to alert him to possible danger.

Early in the morning of March 24 the Exxon Valdez hit the island and almost at once oil was seen oozing out from the ship’s side. Engines were stopped and not long afterward oil was seen spouting into the air from tanks. For twelve days oil leaks continued, then on April 5 special efforts were made to remove as much oil as possible from the ship before trying to do anything about the damage that was caused. Approximately 80 percent of the cargo was recovered, leaving eleven million gallons scattered along shorelines for one hundred and fifty miles. In the weeks that followed another three hundred miles of beaches, past Kodiak Island, were smothered in black oil.

First concerns centered on the marine and shore life populations. The number of species affected was enormous. One reporter listed 120 different forms of life, some of them vital to the economic life of Alaska. They included salmon, otter, herring, halibut, whale, shrimp, sea lion, Arctic fox, Arctic loon, and bald eagle. Everywhere the oil came ashore one could see the dead or the dying among the myriad forms of life, from the tiny plankton to the big sea lions. A cleanup series of activities was soon launched, involving thousands of workers, more than 10,000 vessels, and a hundred miles of boom which was found in haste from all over the world.

Larger birds were treated with tubes that were pushed down via their beaks into their stomachs to give them special food, often at the expense of severe bites on the faces of rescuers. Otters that were not too seriously hurt and abandoned otter pups were taken to shelters. Booms were mounted in numerous places to stop the flow of oil on to the shore and so protect salmon hatcheries and oyster beds. On top of all this activity there was a different kind of concern regarding migrating birds and mammals. Prince William Sound at the center of the oil spill is the world’s single largest stopping place for waterfowl. In summer this area is also visited by large numbers of humpback and killer whales.

One year after the spill only a quarter of the normal volume of birds and whales appeared. Ten years later estimates of loss included 3,000 otters and 300,000 birds. Only two of twenty-nine species examined in detail, bald eagles and river otters, seemed to have made a complete recovery. The cost to the oil company was immense and some environmentalists argued that the inevitable costs of cleanup may be the best way of ensuring that another Exxon Valdez spill will never occur. The ship was barred from ever returning to Alaska. Two billion dollars were paid out for the cleanup, most of it providing needed income for those deprived of their normal livelihood. Civil and criminal charges claimed another billion. Some of the legal ramifications were far from being settled by the year 2001.

Alaska passed a bill requiring the oil industry to stockpile enough sup- plies to deal with a twelve-million-gallon spill. There were other bills dealing with reimbursement of people victimized by spills, monitoring of tankers, pipelines, and vessel traffic, and penalties for violation of the rules governing tankers. The U.S. Congress took action by raising the liability tonnage level for shippers to eight times its previous amount. Congress added a new five-cent-a-barrel fee to provide a billion dollar oil spill response and cleanup fund, and it also dealt with the problem of single hull tankers. Beginning in 1990, all new U.S. tankers must have double hulls and all those without them must be taken out of service over a period of time depending on their ages.

Fortunately, not every oil spill in U.S. waters ended up as a major disaster. Lessons were learned from the Exxon Valdez experience and used subsequently in the Rhode Island spill. On January 19, 1996, an intense winter storm off the southern coast of Rhode Island drove the barge North Cape ashore adjacent to Rhone Island’s Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge. Damaged from the grounding, the barge spilled at least 828,000 gallons of heating oil, which rapidly spread to the coastal ocean. Within hours of the spill, dead marine organisms and sea birds began washing up on the beach. It quickly became the largest oil spill in the history of Rhode Island.

North Cape, a barge loaded with oil, reached the southern shores of Rhode Island when it ran into a storm. The bad weather was not a surprise as it had been forecast, but the seaworthiness of the tug was much less certain. Shortly after leaving New York, while in the protected waters of Long Island Sound, it ran into engine trouble but was able to continue. As it entered the more open waters of Block Island Sound and encountered 60 mph winds with seas running as high as twenty feet, the tug seemed to stall. A fire broke out in its engine room as it approached Point Judith and the crew, after sending a distress signal, abandoned ship. Within minutes the tug was engulfed in flames. The Coast Guard picked up the men from the water.

Barge and tug drifted toward the coast under pressure from the wind. Two men went aboard the barge and attempted to stop the drift by throwing out an anchor. That effort failed because the anchor could not be released. Within a few hours both tug and barge were aground on a barrier beach just west of Point Judith on Rhode Island’s southern shore and next door to the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge. The next morning oil was visible on the water and there were the first marine casualties of the spill. In the following days, the magnitude of the event was evident. About 828,000 gallons of oil had spilled from the barge. As the oil spread from Block Island Sound toward Rhode Island Sound and Narragansett Bay, it forced a closure for fishing for an area of 250 square miles of ocean.

This was Rhode Island’s worst ever oil spill. The stretch of water along Rhode Island’s southern coast is the regular path for all coastwise traffic to and from New York and the probability of an accident of this kind was always high. At any given time huge volumes of oil are passing nearby. Closure of fishing in a large area around Narragansett Bay was followed by other closures. Within a week ponds with lobsters, starfish, clams were all closed down and a general slump set in for all segments of the fishing industry. The barge and tug were finally removed but the damage had been done and little was to change for a long time. Heating oil is lighter than crude, the kind that formed the spills in Alaska and France, and its longlasting effects are accordingly less. In the short-term, however, it is much more toxic and so damage to Rhode Island was extensive and deep.

The coastal environment impacted by this spill lies at the heart of the recreational and commercial fishing industries of Rhode Island. These industries are vital to the economy and lifestyle of the state, and the natural resources of the coast are a key draw for summer visitors. Residents are dependent on these renewable natural resources for fishing, boating, and hiking, as well as for a wide range of economic pursuits. When the livelihood of a whole community is tied to a particular natural thing as is the case here, the effects are felt throughout the state. One indication of this can be seen in the seasonal movements of people from farther north to southern coastal areas. Coastal areas are highly valued by these people and the felt sense of loss is great when a disaster of this kind occurs.

The causes of this oil spill were twofold—poor maintenance of tugs and lack of care when dangerous cargoes are being transported in bad weather. Two years before this accident, a bill had been before Congress providing for the inspection, training, and ongoing supervision of tugboat operators. That bill was never passed. It may yet be revived in the light of this accident. Whether or not that will happen, the experiences in Alaska with the Exxon Valdez and in France with the Amoco Cadiz have already caused major changes in the rules governing oil spills and the resultant cleanup. In the aftermath of this spill, even though it was much smaller than the other two just mentioned, the new regulations and a new awareness of the seriousness of any spill made it much easier to rehabilitate a damaged environment and to do it in less time.

Less than four years after the January 19, 1996, spill, much sooner than anyone expected, a full settlement was reached between federal authorities and the government of Rhode Island in July of 2000. It provided, among many other things, for the replenishment of the lobster populations. Costs of sixteen million dollars were awarded, most of it to be paid by the owners of the tugboat that caused the accident. The spill had killed nine million lobsters and more than 2,000 marine birds and was responsible for the lobster industry being shut down for five months. The habitat of the piping plover was endangered and about one million pounds of clams, oysters and other crustaceans were killed. To ensure a restoration of the Piping Plover’s habitat predator barriers were installed and a public education program launched to gain public support for the renovated habitat.

As part of the same overall agreement with the state of Rhode Island, over a million female lobsters were to be added to Block Island Sound before the year 2005. These would gradually be purchased and introduced over time and all of them would have their tails notched with a “v.” It is illegal to harvest lobsters so marked. As a result, the number of adult females and the overall number of offspring will increase rapidly over the five-year development period. For the recovery of the shellfish industry ten million clams were added to specific habitats in Narragansett Bay and some coastal salt ponds. For the restoration of loons, habitats were restored and arrangements made to monitor nesting sites. In addition, a conservation site was purchased in nearby Maine where loons are known to nest. To improve fish runs obstructions on rivers or streams were removed to ensure easy access to salt ponds.

On the day before the U.S. Department of Justice announced the multimillion dollar settlement, a damaged barge spilled 14,000 gallons of oil into Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, stirring memories of the far larger spill in 1996 into the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge. Five swans had to be euthanized after becoming coated with oil. Another fifty Canada geese were spotted with oily feathers. Sixteen of these birds were captured and loaded on to a boat that has been converted into an animal rescue hospital. There the birds were washed clean of oil and given intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration. Government authorities assured everyone that the coincidence of the two events was purely accidental. Nevertheless it was a timely and vital reminder of the ubiquitous threat from oil spills.


Seveso Dioxin Spill – Italy – July 10, 1976

Due to faulty understanding of the chemical processes involved, workers allowed substantial quantities of dioxin to escape into the community of Seveso. This accidental release of dioxin had a revolutionary and costly series of consequences for the people of Seveso.

One of the most serious problems facing chemical factories is change from an original design. The reason for a change may be entirely justified but unless the implications are fully understood and the personnel involved informed of the change the result can be catastrophic. The explosion at Oppau in 1921 would never have happened if workers at the plant had been informed of the character of the new compound that had been introduced.

The explosion at Icmesa’s chemical plant in Seveso on July 10, 1976, was another example of a change in the mode of production, one that led to terrible consequences. It was not a dramatic event when it happened, but its effects were devastating. Observers said that a white cloud shot up from the factory and very soon thereafter they could smell an unpleasant odor. The odor belonged to a highly toxic organic compound known as dioxin that had escaped from the Seveso factory.

The managers of the Icmesa chemical plant at Seveso, near Milan in northern Italy, made a change in the production process after several years of production with the original design. The workers of the factory were very familiar with the original process and some of them had difficulty understanding some key parts of the new process. In particular, they failed to note that temperature control at all stages was absolutely essential. The original plan for the factory was to produce TCP for herbicides and medicines at low temperatures. The chemical process by which the TCP was manufactured created quite a lot of heat and this heat had to be dissipated as quickly as possible as part of the chemical cycle.

The method used to accomplish this involved evaporating another chemical, one that was able to cool the immediate environment. In order to lower the temperature even further, as soon as a batch of TCP was completed all parts of the chemical processes involved in production were immersed in a cold-water tank. The whole manufacturing sequence was thus maintained at a very low temperature, a vital consideration because of the dangerous byproducts that might appear under a high temperature regime.

If the temperature of the manufacturing cycle were to rise very high, a whole new product, dioxin, a highly toxic organic compound, would be created in place of the TCP. In addition to cancer, exposure to dioxin can cause severe reproductive and developmental problems. It can also damage the immune system and interfere with hormonal systems. Dioxin was the carcinogenic chemical that caused many tragic outcomes at Love Canal, New York. The great danger of allowing high temperatures to develop was somehow overlooked when a manager at the factory decided to change the original design. The alternative he chose was to use only water at all stages rather than the chemical that was selected for temperature control. Perhaps this was a lower cost approach. Whatever the reason for the change, it required more time and substantial quantities of water to keep temperatures as low as they had been maintained by the former method.

The accident that led to the formation and then the release of dioxin happened on a Saturday morning when workers went off shift, oblivious to the fact that the hot chemicals needed sufficient water to lower the temperature. The newer method of water control was a slow process and these workers did not want to take the time needed. Furthermore, they were unaware of the terrible consequences of overheating. There was one other unfortunate circumstance. On the vents above the reactor where the two chemicals were mixed there were rupture-discs that would open under pressure and remain open.

Had these rupture-discs been of the spring-loaded kind they would have snapped back once the pressure dropped. Thus less gas would have escaped. As it was, heat and pressure built up steadily in the absence of a water shield and dioxin formed. As the rupture-discs opened, a cloud of gas which carried more than two pounds of the lethal dioxin spread out into the surrounding area. It was not accompanied by the kind of noise that would have alerted people to its presence. All that was visible was a small cloud rising above the factory.

A breeze blew the gas southward over Seveso and several communities bordering Milan. The first people to observe the gas plume from the factory and detect a very unpleasant odor rushed home and shut their doors. They found that the smoke and smell were already in the house when they arrived. Through the night they suffered headaches and nausea. Next morning the children had swollen eyes and skin blisters but doctors were unable to say what the problem was. For more than a week, none of the residents of the affected area knew the cause of the discomforts they were experiencing. Their knowledge of the effects of dioxin was quite limited.

People did quickly note that animals were dying by the thousands and leaves on trees were withering. Doctors and hospitals were swamped with patients who had skin problems. People were being evacuated from the most contaminated area and consumption of all local produce was banned. About one week after the explosion Icmesa’s officials urged a mass evacuation from the whole contaminated area. The reality had become clear— there had been a medical catastrophe and the effects were likely to last a long time. One regional health officer declared that Seveso had experienced its own Hiroshima.

The heaviest blow of all came still later, after the gas cloud was gone. A report from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration made it clear that dioxin, even in very small doses, can damage kidneys, livers, and lungs. It is also extremely dangerous for fetuses, much worse than thalidomide, so the fear of having deformed children swept across Italy. Doctors in Seveso warned that if they found deformed fetuses in pregnant women they would recommend abortions. This caused heated debate everywhere because Italy is a Catholic country and the Roman Catholic Church opposes abortions.

To stop the spread of contamination, an army of veterinarians in protective suits destroyed all the surviving animals in the affected areas. This was followed by the destruction of cornfields and vegetable gardens, but no one knew how to ensure a complete cleanup. Reports from other countries were not encouraging. In Britain, eight years earlier, a dioxin spill occurred at a chemical factory. The only solution was to pull down the whole factory building and bury it deep in an abandoned mineshaft. Vietnamese experts who had to deal with the effects of defoliation from their recent war warned that it would be difficult to limit the contamination to the area around Seveso. One of the main components of the defoliation in that war was dioxin.

One valuable consequence of the Seveso disaster was the creation of the European Community’s (EC) Seveso Directive, a new system of industrial regulation. Within the EC, each country previously followed its own rules for managing industrial safety. Urgent discussions about a new ECwide regulatory framework for ensuring the safety of hazardous installations started after the explosion at Flixborough in 1974 and then Seveso. Neither the residents of Seveso nor the local and regional authorities suspected that the Icmesa plant was a source of risk. They did not even know much about the type of production processes and chemical substances that occurred there.

The factory had been in existence for thirty years and the only occasional complaints from nearby residents related to unpleasant smells. Of much greater significance were the changes that had been made at both Seveso and Flixborough. These were changes in plant or processes which compromised the safety of the facilities but were not communicated to the authorities responsible for public health and safety. In light of these disastrous accidents it was clear that new legislation was needed to improve the safety of industrial sites, to plan for off-site emergencies, and to cope with the broader regional aspects of industrial safety.

The Seveso Directive, adopted by the Council of Ministers of the European Communities in June 1982, is the result of those efforts. A central part of the Directive is a requirement for public information about major industrial hazards and appropriate safety measures in the event of an accident. It is based on the recognition that industrial workers and the general public need to know about hazards that threaten them and about safety procedures. This is the first time that the principle of “need to know” was enshrined in European Community legislation. The “need to know” principle is not as strong as the “right to know” principle that is widely applied in the United States.

Although the Seveso Directive grew out of deficiencies in the existing system of industrial regulation, it is not only intended to provide protection against hazards. It also serves to equalize the burden of regulation on industry. The creation of a single hazardous industry code ensures a “level playing field” for trade within the European Community by depriving unscrupulous industrial operators of competitive advantages they might gain by exploiting differences among individual countries. Adoption of the “need to know” principle increases the political equality of decision making and adds a valuable new tool to the regulatory process.

Twenty-five years after the events of 1976 there is a three-hundred-acre park, Seveso Oak Forest Park, where once stood the Icmesa Chemical Plant. It is a popular picnic site. Beneath it lie the poisonous remains of the dioxin spill stored in two enormous concrete tanks. They contain the top sixteen inches of soil from all contaminated areas, the bodies of animals that had to be slaughtered, and the factory that caused the tragedy. It was taken apart brick by brick by workers in protective suits and placed below ground in the concrete tanks. Water periodically seeps from the tanks into another container where any dioxin remnants are treated.

One extraordinary finding emerged in the years that followed the dioxin leak. Within the first seven years, those mothers who had experienced some contamination, but not sufficient to require an abortion, brought more female babies to birth than males. The proportions were quite exceptional, forty-six females to twenty-eight males among the whole population of births. This was the first discovery of a molecule that could change the sex ratio.

In 1976, Dr. Mocarelli was put in charge of a lab to test affected people. He decided to take a blood sample from each of the 30,000 most affected and keep these samples in refrigerated storage in the hope that one day a test would be developed to tell levels of dioxin from a person’s blood. That discovery was made eleven years later and so, as a result of Dr. Mocarelli’s foresight, Seveso is today a world capital of expertise for dioxin’s effects on humans. Twenty-five years of patients records coupled with original blood samples are available to researchers.


London Suffocating Smog – England – December 5, 1952

London’s nine million residents were almost totally immobilized for four days as a thick smog smothered the city and killed 4,000 people.

From the fifth to the ninth of December 1952, a mass of dry, cold air settled over London, strong enough to prevent any upward movement of the air on the ground. Above this strong layer of very cold air there was a layer of warm air, the opposite of what one would expect. This is often referred to as a temperature inversion. In this situation pollutants get trapped at ground level and, since there was no wind on this occasion, pollutants stayed within the areas of highest population densities.

The air became a blinding, suffocating cloud of gas, creating the worst fog in living memory. Breathing passages were clogged and eyes hurt. Within a few hours people were breathing foul and very dangerous gases. Before cleaner air returned a few days later, 4,000 people had died and many thousands more were seriously ill.

London’s history of fogs is well known. Novelists often refer to it and many of them conjure up pictures of a dark, damp, foggy atmosphere to enrich their stories, especially if they are murder mystery ones. The tons of sulfur dioxide and other pollutants that come from coal-burning fires and furnaces are the causes of this unhealthy atmosphere. Smog might be a better word than fog to describe what actually occurs. Locally, the preferred word is pea soup. From the earliest days of the industrial revolution coal was the choice of almost everyone for heating and cooking so, over the past two centuries, huge population centers like London had a growing problem that came from coal fumes.

Long before 1952 there were complaints that the outsides of heritage buildings were decaying from coal smoke. By the middle of the nineteenth century the problem was acute. Novelists made reference to London’s half million coal fires mingling with the surrounding air, being modified by inadequate drainage, and causing a black unhealthy atmosphere.

It is hard to imagine a metropolitan area of nine million people coming to a complete standstill, but that is exactly what happened. Every aspect of city life was crippled and, perhaps for the first time, most of its residents discovered how interconnected and interdependent all the parts really were. Fortunately, the paralysis lasted no more than four days yet in that time some 4,000 people lost their lives and as many more died later as a result of what they had breathed.

Many thousands of others were seriously ill. Of those who died, 90 percent were over forty-five years of age. Try to imagine what life would be like in London during those days of December 1952 and compare your list with the reality that is recorded in the next few paragraphs.

All transportation except the underground railway system was stopped. Even the underground trains had trouble when they emerged above ground for part of the way. In streets everywhere visibility dropped to a point where nothing could be seen beyond a couple of feet. Drivers who tried to move were confronted with barricades of abandoned cars. One ambulance attendant walked twenty-five miles holding an open-flame torch to guide his driver.

Heathrow airport was closed and planes told to use Bournemouth, a seaside town 150 miles southwest of London. Ships unloading food and other essentials had to stop their work because of fears that people as well as goods might fall into the water and no one would know.

Polluted air poured through windows and under doorways. The city became a place of lost and troubled people. Fleets of ambulances were called in from surrounding communities to help with the masses of people of all ages who just could not cope with the attacks on their lungs. They were of little use because visibility made it almost impossible for them to get to where they were needed.

Doctors were unable to reach hospitals or individuals at home and resorted to telephone calling to diagnose as well as recommend treatment. Fires broke out but nothing could be done. In one location the fire station was only four hundred yards away from a building that caught fire yet could not get to it. The building was totally destroyed.

Pregnant women were unable to reach their hospitals and had to deliver babies in all kinds of places. Weddings had to be cancelled or else rushed through, if the parties managed to reach the church or registry office, in order to give place to the next latecomer. Electric power was cut off for large sections of the city when staff failed to turn up for duty at the control stations.

The story was similar at the main studios of the British Broadcasting Corporation. Both radio and television programs were curtailed. At a cattle auction animals were dying as they inhaled the poisonous fumes. Some were saved by an enterprising worker who covered the animals’ noses with cloths that were moistened with whisky.

For the fearless that decided to attend theaters the usual tactic was to form a crocodile that is a line of people with each holding on to the next ahead as they tried to find their destination. If they succeeded they had to sit near the front. The movie was barely visible from the back seats. On one of the four evenings of the disaster, the opera La Traviata was cancelled after the first act because of the intensity of the fog. Birds crashed into buildings or plummeted on to streets.

Two of the very few positive outcomes were the increases in business by dry cleaners and beauty shops. If a person went outside for an hour, clothing and hair were soon covered with a black unpleasant coating. Saddest aspect of all, though predictable, was the crime rate. It rose very high because police were powerless to do anything about it.

Air pollution is a major global problem. An Indonesian smog cloud of 1997 was not as destructive as the London one but its effects were similar. Many of the causes of global warming stem from similar climatic conditions and human behaviors as appeared in London. In 1997 Indonesia recorded the destruction of more than seventeen thousand square miles of forest land on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Emissions from these fires caused air pollution problems through all the countries of Southeast Asia, especially Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

A glance at a map will show why these countries were the worst affected. They are the closest to the sources of pollution. Tiny pieces of the carbon remnants from the fires proved to be the most damaging pollutants. They caused acute respiratory diseases such as bronchitis and asthma and often caused death. Secondary effects of this kind of solid matter in the air were poor visibility and disruption of transportation systems. Flights were delayed and transportation on land and sea was slowed down. Construction work was stopped for fear of damaging the health of workers. Tourists stayed away.

The fires were the result of bush clearances. These were carried out by companies that wanted to make way for the development of new palm oil plantations. The first of these practices, often known as slash and burn, is widely condemned by environmentalists all over the world. It is an ancient mode of agriculture, once acceptable in remote areas of jungle among small groups of people, but too destructive when conducted on a large scale.

Plantation planning is on a much bigger scale and affects greater areas of land. About a tenth of the world’s supply of tropical rainforests is in Indonesia and these are the forests that are exceptionally rich in biodiversity. For this reason alone, these forests of Indonesia are a valuable area that needs to be preserved for the sake of humanity as a whole. One problem in trying to take action is that our knowledge of the resources of this country is not accurate. It is not known for instance how much of forest is being cut down each year. Some estimates go as high as two million acres.

Satellite imagery from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) identified a smoke haze extending over more than a million square miles from Indonesia to Thailand in 1997. NASA also noted that the level of pollution was far above normal air quality standards for that region and was, in fact, thirty times higher in places close to the fires. Visibility in the islands where burning was taking place dropped to half a mile and at times to less than three hundred feet.

The urban centers of Southeast Asia are already overcrowded and their services are inadequate to cope with the steady influx from rural areas. Air quality is always poor so any sudden increase like the 1997 one raises pollution to dangerous levels. In Singapore, all though the latter part of 1997, there was a 30 percent increase in hospital attendance regarding illnesses related to the haze. Estimated damages for the smog cloud of 1997 were one billion dollars in Indonesia alone. For Malaysia and Singapore combined it was half a billion dollars and for the whole of the ASEAN Region about four and a half billion dollars.

Air pollution is the source of environmental damage to forests, soils, air, and acid-sensitive aquatic organisms. All these impacts add significant economic costs. As this becomes widely known, pollution abatement policies are given higher priority. Direct regulation, the one used in Britain in the wake of the 1952 disaster, is one way of responding. Taxation and private litigation are other approaches. Contamination of the atmosphere is a long-standing side effect of industrialization.

The severity of the problem and the public awareness of it, however, are relatively new. As industry expanded rapidly throughout the world after World War II, pollution followed. London’s deadly fog, while rare even in England, has served to highlight the global challenge. In the capitals of the two biggest countries of the world in terms of population, Delhi in India and Beijing in China, conditions approximating those of London are common. Sources of the problem in these cities are the same as London’s, burning of fossil fuels.

From time to time across the United States, there are problems of air pollution that endanger health. In Donora, Pennsylvania, in 1948, a temperature inversion occurred, very similar to London’s. Donora was the site of a steel mill and other industrial plants and normally the smoke and fumes from them posed little danger to health. This time, because of a mass of cold air, pollutants were concentrated in one area for three days. Twenty people died and thousands became ill.

In the summer of 1955, Los Angeles experienced a week of temperatures that stayed above one hundred degrees and led to a smog emergency. A deadly dark haze filled the air as the sun’s rays interacted with the exhaust fumes of cars. Large numbers of people complained of painful eyes and difficulty with breathing. Los Angeles has been aware for a long time of this kind of eventuality because of its climate and its extensive use of cars. Years ago it mandated low emissions for all cars and this has helped reduce the frequency of serious smog emergencies.

The end of London’s tragedy arrived three days after it began. Stagnant air gave way to winds and the smog began to lift. An investigation was launched into the cause of the disaster. Within the millions of tons of sulphur were huge volumes of sulphuric acid and it is this that caused the greatest damage. It combined with metal, stones, and clothing to weaken and destroy them. As a result of this disaster, the Clean Air Act of 1956 was introduced. Stricter regulations were placed on coal-burning furnaces and anti-pollution laws were strongly enforced, but it took time for change to occur. Six years after the passing of the act a smog attack killed sixty people within three days.

A newspaper reported that, on that day, smoke levels were 10 percent above normal and sulfur dioxide fourteen times higher. Gradually the switch to low-sulfur fuels like natural gas changed the city’s air. London’s pea soups now belong to history. Coal is no longer in widespread use. Where it is still used in electricity-generating stations there are scrubbers in place to minimize the amounts of pollutants released into the atmosphere.


Bikini Atoll Nuclear Tests – Marshall Islands – February 1, 1946

Shortly after the end of World War II, the U.S. Navy decided to carry out a series of atomic bomb tests on different kinds of ships. Bikini Atoll in the Central Pacific was chosen for these tests and the islanders were persuaded to move temporarily to another island group. They were assured of a safe return to their homes in due course. That return never happened. Short visits soon made it clear that the soils of their atoll carried extremely high levels of radiation. Bikini had become a wasteland, an environmental disaster.

Bikini Atoll is one of a group of atolls that compose the Marshall Islands, a U.S. protectorate under the United Nations in the years following World War II. These islands are located about halfway between Hawaii and Australia and stretch over the Pacific Ocean for hundreds of thousands of square miles. Average temperature is over eighty degrees Fahrenheit and rainfall amounts to sixty inches annually. The first Europeans to reach the area were Spanish.

That was more than three hundred years ago. For most of the succeeding 250 years there was little continuing contact with western nations. Trade in copra oil from coconuts was carried on but the islanders remained isolated, free to live in their closely integrated society, strengthened by extended family ties and local traditions.

All this changed dramatically after World War I when Japan was mandated by the victorious nations to govern the islands. A military buildup began on Kwajalein Atoll, two hundred miles to the south of Bikini as this place became headquarters for Japan’s armed forces in the Marshall Islands. A watchtower was built to guard against possible invasions. This Atoll was still a fortified military position throughout World War II and was finally captured by U.S. forces in 1944 after a terrifying and costly conflict.

After the war President Truman directed the U.S. Navy to investigate the effects of atomic bombs on U.S. warships. Bikini Atoll was chosen for this project for several reasons. It was located away from regular air and sea routes, had a good-sized lagoon, and close by there were a few large islands that could serve as observing stations. There was good access to the lagoon through wide channels and a shallow area a few miles away was a suitable site for anchoring the target ships. Kwajalein and Enewetak were close enough to serve as bases for aircraft.

In February of 1946 the Bikinians, all 167 of them, were asked if they would be willing to leave temporarily so that the United States could begin testing atomic bombs. The U.S. governor assured them that this move would be for the good of mankind and to end all world wars. After much sorrowful deliberation King Juda, the Bikinian leader announced “We will go, believing that everything is in the hands of God.” The Bikinians were sent to Rongerik Atoll, 125 miles to the east, a place about one-sixth the size of Bikini and a location that was traditionally regarded by the Bikinians as unlivable because of inadequate resources of water and food. There was also a deeply-felt conviction that Rongerik was inhabited by evil spirits.

The Bikinians were given food supplies for several weeks and then left to fend for themselves. Soon after these provisions ran out, the islander’s worst fears began to surface as they were unable to find adequate local food supplies of the kind they were accustomed to, coconuts and fish. A rash of serious illnesses late in 1946, perhaps due to lack of food, and a fire damaging a large number of coconut trees, reduced them to near starvation. They begged the Navy to let them return to Bikini. Instead they were moved to Ujelang Atoll early in 1947, but something went wrong with that plan and their odyssey took them to yet another group of islands, Kwajalein, where they were housed in tents on a strip of grass beside the airport.

The reason for these migrations was always the same, the operational needs of the atomic bomb tests. The health and welfare of the islanders seemed to matter little. In 1948 there was another move and they left Kwajalein for the Island of Kili, far to the south of the Marshall Islands. While the islanders struggled to set up their new community on Kili, Bikini continued to be irradiated with a steady succession of bombs. The first two, each of the same power that had devastated the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 just before the end of World War II, were detonated in the air. They were followed by more than twenty other blasts between the years 1946 and 1958, some on the ground, some above.

In 1954, the new and vastly more dangerous hydrogen bomb, a thousand times more powerful than the one that destroyed Hiroshima (see Hiroshima, Japan, nuclear bomb), was detonated on the ground. Weather forecasting was very different in 1954 from what it is today. There were no satellites and no computers. Furthermore, little historical data was available for Bikini so it was very difficult to predict how winds might change in the short term. The enormous amount of planning and arranging that went into a bomb test, especially this new type, necessitated a decision some time ahead of the blast. Winds were favorable all day right up to eight hours before blast time, but then they changed. The test went forward in spite of the fact that radiation would inevitably blow in the direction of some inhabited islands.

The site was the surface of the reef in the northwestern corner of Bikini Island. The area was illuminated by an expanding flash of blinding light. A raging fireball of intense heat measuring into the millions of degrees shot skyward at a rate of three hundred miles an hour. Within minutes the monstrous cloud, filled with nuclear debris, shot up more than twenty miles and generated winds at hundreds of miles per hour.

These fiery gusts blasted the surrounding islands and stripped the branches and coconuts from the trees. On Bikini Island, millions of tons of sand, coral, plant, and sea life from Bikini’s reef and the surrounding lagoon waters were sent high into the air. The force of the explosion was far beyond the expectations of observing scientists. It was the most powerful bomb ever exploded by the United States. Fifty thousand square miles were contaminated.

Ships which were stationed about forty miles east and south of Bikini, in positions enabling them to monitor the test, detected the eastward movement of the radioactive cloud from the fifteen megaton blast. They recorded a steady increase in radiation levels that became so high that all men were below decks and all hatches and watertight doors were sealed. One-and-a-half hours after the explosion, twenty-three fishermen aboard a Japanese fishing vessel, the Lucky Dragon, watched in awe as a “gritty white ash” began to fall on them. The men aboard the ship were oblivious to the fact that the ash was the fallout from a hydrogen bomb test. Shortly after being exposed to the fallout their skin began to itch and they experienced nausea and vomiting. One man died.

On Rongelap Atoll—located about 125 miles east of Bikini—three to four hours after the blast, the same white, snow-like ash began to fall from the sky onto the sixty-four people living there. Not understanding what had happened they watched as two suns rose that morning, observed with amazement as the radioactive dust soon formed a layer on their island two inches deep turning the drinking water a brackish yellow. Children played in the fallout. Their mothers watched in horror as night came and they began to show the physical signs of exposure. There was severe vomiting along with diarrhea and hair falling out. The islanders fell into a state of terrified panic. Two days later they were finally taken to Kwajalein for medical treatment.

About twelve years after the series of bomb tests was completed, U.S. government agencies began to consider returning the Bikinians to their homelands in compliance with the original promise in 1946. Specialists measured radiation levels on Bikini Atoll and it was considered safe. One report from the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) went so far as to say, “Well water could be used safely by the natives upon their return to Bikini. It appears that radioactivity in the drinking water may be ignored from a radiological safety standpoint. The exposures of radiation that would result from the repatriation of the Bikini people do not offer a significant threat to their health and safety.” Accordingly, in June of 1968, the 540 Bikinians living on Kili and other islands returned to their homeland.

For seven years there was little indication of any problem. The population of Bikini slowly increased. Then in 1975, during regular monitoring, radiological tests discovered higher levels of radioactivity than was originally thought. The U.S. Department of Interior officials stated that “Bikini appears to be questionable as to safety” and an additional report pointed out that some water wells on Bikini Island were also too contaminated with radioactivity for drinking. A couple of months later the AEC, on review of the scientists’ data, decided that the local foods grown on Bikini Island, i.e., pandanus, breadfruit, and coconut crabs, were also too radioactive for human consumption.

Within a few months, after contemplating these new, terrifying, and confusing reports on the radiological condition of their atoll, the Bikinians filed a lawsuit in U.S. federal court demanding that a complete scientific survey of Bikini and the northern Marshalls be conducted. The lawsuit stated that the United States had used highly sophisticated and technical radiation detection equipment at Enewetak Atoll, but had refused to employ it at Bikini. More than three years of bureaucratic squabbles between the U.S. Departments of State, Interior and Energy over costs and responsibility for the survey, delayed any action on its implementation. The Bikinians, unaware of the severity of the radiological danger, remained on their contaminated island.

In April of 1978 medical examinations performed by U.S. physicians revealed radiation levels in many of the 139 people on Bikini to be well above the U.S. maximum permissible level. The very next month, U.S. Interior Department officials described the 75 percent increase in radioactive cesium 137 as incredible. The Interior Department immediately announced plans to move the people from Bikini “within 75 to 90 days,” and so in September of that same year people were once again evacuated.

The Bikinians saw their homeland again only once in 1988. They were brought back to witness the beginnings of a long-term project, the decontamination of the soils all around the lagoon. Some day, as yet unknown because of the enormity of the damage, that project might be completed so that a future generation of Bikinians can live there.

After the people of Bikini were removed from their atoll for a second time, the U.S. government established a $6 million trust, The Hawaiian Trust Fund for the People of Bikini. A second grant of money, $20 million, was given to the Bikinians in 1982 to help them when they could return to their homeland. In 1997 there was a third grant, $90 million, this time for the cleanup of Bikini and Eneu, two of the group of islands known as Bikini Atoll. The total value of the fund by the year 2000 was $130 million. Ninety of the original 167 Bikinians, who left in 1946, were still alive at that time.

In March of 1998 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) presented its final report on radiological conditions at Bikini Atoll. It concluded that, on the basis of the amount and quality of the information now available, no further testing is necessary. The Bikinians should not be allowed to return to their homeland of Bikini Island permanently, and eat locally grown food, until remedial measures are carried out. However, if the food consumed is imported, as is presently the case in a number of sites on the Atoll where fishing in the lagoon and diving-tourist enterprises on the big sunken ships are in operation, there are no dangers associated with temporary occupancy.

The IAEA is quite sure that it is safe to walk on all of the Bikini islands. While the residual radioactivity is still too high for growing crops, it is not hazardous to health. The air, land surface, lagoon water, and the drinking water are all safe. There is no radiological risk in visiting the lagoon or the islands. The nuclear weapon tests have left practically no cesium in marine life. The cesium deposited in the lagoon was dispersed in the ocean long ago. The main radiation risk would be from the food. Eating locally grown produce, such as fruit, coconuts, and breadfruit would not be safe.

One measure under consideration by the IAEA for ensuring the return of the islanders with freedom for them to eat locally grown food uses a potassium-based fertilizer. This would be spread on all areas of Bikini Island, not other islands of the Atoll, together with removal of soil beneath and around homes and replacing it with crushed coral. Because Bikini Island is extremely deficient in potassium, it has been found that plants will choose this when it is available rather than radiated minerals. The problem with this approach is its short life. It will work for four or five years only before repeated applications of the fertilizer are needed.

The Bikinians are wary of any short-term measures. They have been badly hurt already by temporary arrangements, bringing them close to starvation. They favor the IAEA’s soil-scraping approach whereby the top fifteen inches of soil is removed. This would eliminate the danger of radiation but it would be environmentally costly. The fertile topsoil supports the tree crops which are a major local food resource. Nevertheless, the Bikinians continue to campaign for a soil-scraping approach for all twentythree islands of the Bikini Atoll. They would like to see it happen first on Bikini Island with the soil used to build a causeway to a neighboring island presently accessible only at low tide.

The enormous ignorance that prevailed in 1946 about the dangers of radiation from atomic bombs created a lethal atmosphere around the Bikini test area. Some of the tragic effects of this were immediately evident but others came to light gradually over succeeding years. Hundreds of military personnel who were involved in the tests suffered from radiation diseases of various kinds. Today the dangers from radiation are well known and protective measures are in place. Of the more than two hundred ships that were brought to Bikini for the tests, ten of the biggest, including the former aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, still lie in the Bikini lagoon. They are uncontaminated now and serve as popular sites for diving tourism.