The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is hardly the nation’s first environmental catastrophe caused in whole or in part by human actions. It’s likely one of the worst, and certainly one of the most far-reaching. But plenty of more localized disasters have caused significant damage themselves, helped shape our current policies, and served as lessons on what not to do.
Here are some of the country’s most notable environmental disasters with human influence, both large-scale and small-scale, and how the government has dealt with them.
The Johnstown Flood
An improperly maintained dam and heavy rains caused this flood, which killed more than 2,200 people in southwestern Pennsylvania on May 31, 1889.
The dam that burst was owned by a country club frequented by Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon and other “robber barons” of the era. “It was largely workers in their factories who were killed in the ensuing flood,” said Brian Black, a professor of history and environmental studies at Penn State Altoona. “It was a serious lesson on the ethics of the industrial era.”
No fines were given or charges filed, Black said, despite the high-profile names associated with the club. And a private investigation by the Pennsylvania Railroad was considered a sham. “The industrial powers very much were in power, and the government practiced a laissez-faire approach,” he said.
But the flood did become one of the first peacetime relief efforts for the American Red Cross, which, less than two decades later, became a congressionally chartered organization.