Peru Earthquake – May 31, 1970

The earthquake in west-central Peru triggered a massive avalanche that swept downhill from a height of 18,000 feet.

On the afternoon of May 31, 1970, an earthquake of magnitude 7.9 struck an area of more than 30,000 square miles in west-central Peru near the town of Chimbote about three hundred miles north of the capital, Lima. Earthquake-triggered slope failures of all types in the white and black mountain ranges of the Ancash region extensively damaged transportation routes and irrigation canals and temporarily dammed some rivers and lakes. The geologically most important and most spectacular disruption was a massive debris avalanche from an altitude of 18,000 feet on the north peak of Mount Huascaran that overwhelmed and buried the city of Yungay. Altogether 70,000 lives were lost, 140,000 injured, 800,000 lost their homes, and 160,000 buildings were destroyed. Property damage amounted to more than half a billion dollars.

The debris avalanche consisted of one hundred million cubic yards of rock, ice, snow, and soil. The earthquake that lasted less than a minute destabilized the northern wall of Mount Huascaran and created the avalanche, a sliding mass of glacial ice and rock, 3,000 feet wide and one-mile long. This mass of ice and rock traveled downhill for ten miles from source to Yungay at an average speed of two hundred mph. Eyewitness accounts of the event told of topographic obstructions as high as five hundred feet being overridden by the avalanche and boulders weighing several tons being thrown forward as far as 3,000 feet.

The valley between the two mountain ranges experienced the greatest overall damage, especially in the valley of the Santa River. Coastal towns were hit very hard with Chimbote having 90 percent of its buildings destroyed. The Pan-American Highway was damaged and that made the provision of humanitarian aid difficult. Most of the fatalities from the earthquake were caused by the collapse of buildings. The buildings, unfortunately, were often located on alluvial fill, and they were made of adobe construction.

This earthquake, the worst natural disaster in the history of the Western Hemisphere up to that time, had an epicenter that was located twenty miles offshore and at a depth of twenty-five miles below the ocean surface. Peru is no stranger to violent earthquakes. There have been many in the past and there will be more in the future. The great heights of the Andes Mountains are a consequence of these earthquakes as the Nazca Tectonic Plate subducts beneath the South American Plate. This movement between the two plates is continuous and the additional continuous westward movement of the continental block of South America, at the same time, speeds up the rate of interaction between these two plates.

The Nazca at Peru dips under the continent at an angle of sixty degrees, and earthquakes occur at increasingly greater depths toward the east, reaching a maximum of 380 miles near the Peru–Brazil border. The rupture that created this 1970 earthquake extended one hundred miles to the south. The absence of surface tectonic displacements or of a significant tsunami and the spatial distribution of the main shock and aftershocks suggest that the earthquake originated by movement on a fault, or faults, beneath the continental shelf.

The River Santa flows through a narrow valley, 125 miles in length, one-mile-wide at its widest point, and all of it at an elevation of 14,000 feet. It lies between the black and white mountain ranges. For centuries the lifestyle of the people who lived in this valley changed very little. The farmland is rich, regularly irrigated with water from the neighboring mountains, providing pasture for rearing sheep and soil for growing corn, wheat, and barley.

The people of the valley frequently speak both Spanish and the ancient Inca language, Quechua. Some own land and many others are workers employed by large landowners. All of this traditional way of life changed as a result of the earthquake. New communities and new opportunities took the place of the old. The Peruvian government has forbidden excavation in the area where the town of Yungay is buried, declaring it a national cemetery. The few survivors from the Santa River valley were resettled and the government declared May 31 as Natural Disaster Education and Reflection Day, in memory of the deadliest seismic disaster in the history of Latin America.


Bangladesh Cyclone – November 9, 1970

Cyclones that strike land from the Bay of Bengal, India, have always caused high death tolls. This cyclone was the worst of all.

High tidal waves and tropical storm surges constantly strike the northwest shores of the Bay of Bengal around the delta of the Ganges River. However, the cyclone that struck on November 9, 1970, surpassed all the others in terms of fatalities. It was the worst tropical cyclone disaster in history. The area receiving the main thrust of the storm was Bangladesh, known in 1970 as East Pakistan.

The total death toll was estimated to be between 300,000 and 500,000 and it was indicative of the low standards of living and public administration that the range of uncertainty was so great. At the time of the cyclone, tensions were building up between East and West Pakistan because the eastern half was losing out economically and poverty was widespread. Within four months of this storm the two parts of Pakistan would be at war, leaving little hope for effective reconstruction after the storm.

The powerful tropical cyclone made landfall on East Pakistan in the middle of the night with winds of 140 mph and a storm surge of twenty feet that was unusually high because the storm arrived at high tide. The whole area on which the storm struck is low-lying, only a few feet above sea level, so destruction was total. Places just vanished. Bamboo dwellings were carried away and their sites replaced with masses of mud.

The low earth barriers that marked off rice paddies and homes provided no protection against the flood of water. Survivors tried to hold on to palm trees until the storm passed. Warnings of the approaching storm had been issued but there were no ways of communicating them to the many living on islands and more distant coastal areas. Large numbers were asleep when the storm surge reached them and they had no chance of escape. Because so much of the land is close to sea level, one quarter of East Pakistan’s total landmass was under water for a time.

As news of this disaster reached the outside world, relief began to arrive from both nearby and distant countries. Ferrying in supplies to remote locations by air and rescuing those needing medical attention helped to save many, but the scale of the disaster was too big to reach all who were in need. Starvation, exposure, and disease kept adding to the death toll. A million head of cattle died and an unknown number of fishing vessels had been washed out to sea. More than a million acres of rice paddies were lost with their crops of rice just two weeks away from harvesting.

Governments and private agencies decided that cyclone shelters were essential because of the frequency of cyclones. Over the following four years, more than two hundred of these were built with aid money from the World Bank. Another storm arrived in 1985, killing more than 10,000 people. Shelter construction continued, each structure being able to house 1,000 people, until by the early 1990s there was sufficient shelter provision for a third of a million people, a valuable help but far from sufficient for a nation that has many more than one hundred million people.


Guatemala Earthquake – February 4, 1976

The epicenter was one hundred miles northeast of the city and the earthquake, with a magnitude of 7.5, was powerful enough to kill 25,000 people and destroy most of the homes.

In the early morning hours of February 4, 1976, an earthquake of magnitude 7.5 hit Guatemala City. It was the most destructive that the country had experienced in more than half a century. The epicenter was one hundred miles northeast of the city. There were numerous aftershocks, some of them as lethal as the main one. In all, 25,000 people died, 80,000 were injured, 250,000 homes were destroyed, and about one and a half million were left without homes. Damage was extensive.

Most of the adobe-type structures in the outlying areas of Guatemala City were completely destroyed by the earthquake. Access to or out of the city was stopped by many landslides. Food and water supplies were severely reduced. Some of the areas were without electricity and communication for days. The main shock was followed by thousands of aftershocks, some of the larger ones causing additional loss of life and damage. Shock waves were felt as far away as Mexico City. In neighboring Honduras, the earthquake destroyed parts of three towns near the Guatemalan border and caused flooding and power failures.

The U.S. government provided an immediate $3.6 million in emergency aid, and an additional $15 million came in voluntary contributions from the United States within six days of the quake. The Organization of American States contributed $500,000, and most other Latin American countries sent food, clothing, medical supplies, doctors, and relief experts.

The fault associated with the quake runs east to west from a point about fifteen miles north of Guatemala Cit to Puerto Barrios near the Gulf of Honduras. During an air reconnaissance of the fault zone, USGS scientists observed fault breakage along a one hundred-mile stretch of the fault.

The epicenter of the main shock, where the rupture began, was identified at latitude 15.27 North and longitude 89.25 West, about twelve miles west of Los Amates and south of Lake Izabal. A shorter fault, at right angles to the main one but only four miles west of Guatemala City, added substantially to the damage. In terms of the total amount of energy released by this earthquake, it was only one-sixteenth of the 1906 San Francisco quake. Like California, Guatemala is known as earthquake country.

The fault that caused this one separates the great North American and Caribbean tectonic plates so, when these plates slide past each other as these two did in Guatemala, and as two plates do in California along the San Andreas, faults break and the earth shakes.


Tangshan Earthquake – China – July 28, 1976

Information about this earthquake was slow in coming because the Chinese authorities did not want to create widespread fear. The official death toll was 250,000 but many experts think that the total was much greater.

Early in the morning of July 28, 1976, China experienced its deadliest earthquake in four hundred years. It was probably the worst earthquake in history if we also take account of the damage to property. The official death toll was 250,000, and three times that number of people were injured. Many experts say that the death toll was far greater than the official number. The earthquake came in two waves, an early morning quake with a strength of 8.2 on the Richter Scale and an aftershock that arrived later in the day with a strength of 7.9. Both waves were individually greater than the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Because it happened less than 150 miles from Beijing, the nation’s authorities, fearing another earthquake, told people to stay out of doors. Six million slept outside in temporary shelters for about two weeks.

The epicenter of the earthquake was directly beneath the city of Tangshan so the destruction was total. Those who were not immediately crushed by collapsing homes were thrown six feet into the air and spun around. Some writers have compared the damage to that caused by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. There was widespread subsidence and this had far-reaching effects on the complex railway system underground as the ground around the city collapsed on to the open spaces below.

The railways that reached the city through the underground tunnels served the main industrial areas of the country, not just those of Tangshan. As a result, much of the nation’s industrial activity was shut down. It took a long time for these railway yards and the dead bodies among them to be cleared and the transportation system restored to normal working conditions.

Thousands of holes appeared in the ground everywhere outside the city limits and the earth had split open for several feet in some places. Surface railway tracks buckled and fences were displaced by as much as five feet. Crops and trees were uprooted and blown over to one side. Traditionally, China is very reluctant to report on events as devastating as this one was, partly because of superstitions that still linger and attribute all kinds of political explanations for what are really natural events. There was another reason too for their reluctance to report the event. Chinese authorities had been making extravagant claims about their ability to predict earthquakes and they did not work for this big event. Such a failure does not necessarily discount their ability to predict. It was well known, especially after the research of a Japanese geologist, that the behavior of animals of all kinds is a good indicator of an approaching quake. They always run away from the earthquake site before the quake occurs. This researcher also discovered that bright lights are a frequent accompaniment of an earthquake and it seems that animals can detect these lights more quickly than humans.

Tangshan is a city of, or was before this event, over one million people. It is a large industrial centre and so during the immediate aftermath of the earthquake huge numbers of people were rushed to the scene, medical and emergency staff included, to try to bring temporary help and protection to the many people affected. There were 252,000 killed and another 164,000 injured in various ways. All together there were 125 aftershocks in this general area, with the strongest of these occurring sixteen hours after the initial earthquake. No information was released to the public because the government of China wondered if the city should be abandoned. Later it was revealed that it took three years for the government to decide to rebuild the city.

However, many years passed before adequate accommodation was available for the people of Tangshan. For example, in 1985, nine years after the earthquake, only 100,000 people had been re-housed. One of the first decisions of the new city’s administration, and one of the reasons for the slow recovery, was the decision to reassess the building code and environmental care arrangements. The previous standards were totally inadequate for protection against another earthquake of the same magnitude.

The overall damage to the city was one hundred percent destruction of all homes and 80 percent destruction of industrial buildings. The damage to these various buildings included collapsed bridges, bent railway tracks, overturned trains, damaged highways, toppled chimneys, broken pipelines, and the cracking of dams. Fortunately, there were no severe occasions of flooding, but liquefaction occurred and it made it almost impossible to move heavy vehicles across the ground.

Tangshan is a center for coal mining, iron, and steel production, and for the manufacture of cement, so the amount of transportation that is conducted there to and from the city is very great. It is a major railway center and there were more than twenty of these trains passing through the city at the time of the earthquake. Several were overturned and the rest damaged and derailed. Beneath the city tens of thousands of coal miners were at work on the night shift. Fortunately, all of them returned safely to the surface.

China is part of the Eurasian Tectonic Plate and over geological time it was steadily pressured westward by the Pacific Plate, the Philippine Plate and the Australian Plate. All three of these tectonic plates are being sub ducted underneath the Eurasian Plate. The subduction zone for the Philippine Plate includes a deep ocean trench between Taiwan and Japan and a similar zone for the Pacific Plate includes the Japan and the Kurile trenches.

These deep trenches, and the fact that so many plates are pushing against the China mainland and moving underneath, are the reasons for the many earthquake warnings and earthquake events that are part of Chinese life. The main reason for this earthquake being as destructive as it was is simply the poor quality of the buildings. They were not built to withstand an earthquake of the strength of that which occurred in 1976.


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.