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‘Toxicity a relative thing’: Worst industrial chemical disasters in human history

‘Toxicity a relative thing’: Worst industrial chemical disasters in human history
An explosion rocked the Arkema plant in Texas once again Friday due to degrading chemicals as a result of Hurricane Harvey. RT looks back at history’s worst industrial chemical disasters, following the plant CEO’s comments that “toxicity is a relative thing.”

"You could call this a warning sign that more explosions or fires could be coming soon," a spokesman for Arkema said Friday, after towering flames and clouds of black smoke overtook much of the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby.

The cooling systems at the plant failed thanks to “unprecedented flooding” overwhelming the site’s “primary power and two sources of emergency backup power.”

The first two explosions rocked the plant on Thursday, with anxious residents unsure if the plant was producing toxic emissions.

“Toxicity is a relative thing,” the plant management said, admitting however that the smoke was “noxious.” Without going into details, the plant also released a list of chemicals stored at the facility – all of which will likely be left to burn out.

While the situation is developing and what, if any, harm it poses to the public remains to be seen, leaks and accidents involving industrial chemicals have claimed thousands of lives and caused untold environmental damage over the years.

Oppau explosion in Germany, 1921

On 21 September 1921, 4,500 tons of a ammonium sulfate and ammonium nitrate fertilizer mixture exploded at a tower silo in Oppau, southwest Germany, at a chemical plant run by the BASF corporation.

An estimated 500 to 600 people were killed and thousands more injured, while thousands of nearby homes were destroyed.

Minamata disease, 1932-1968

For years, local people in the city of Minamata, southwest Japan, noticed that animals, particularly cats, seemed to go mad, suddenly convulsing, running in circles or jumping in the sea. Then it happened to humans – slurred speech, convulsions, and uncontrollable movements. In 1956, the so-called Minamata disease claimed its first human life.

A subsequent investigation revealed that from 1932, the Chisso Corporation, an important local employer, had been dumping mercury left over from its acetaldehyde production (an important chemical used in plastics) in the waters around the city, poisoning the fish and by extension, anyone who ate the fish.

The practice had gone on for decades, continuing all the way until 1968. Angry residents filed suit, while protesters bought enough shares in Chisso to attend and disrupt their stockbrokers meetings, yelling “Murderer!” and “You swallow mercury!” at its chief executives. The corporation in turn hired yakuza gangsters to beat up and intimidate the protesters.

By 1973 however, a judge found Chisso guilty of gross negligence and ordered the company to pay over $66 million in compensation. As of 2001, nearly 3,000 patients had been diagnosed with Minamata Disease, and 1,784 of them have since died.

Bhopal disaster in India, 1984

Considered one of the world’s worst industrial disasters, on the night of 2-3 December 1984, the US-owned Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant started leaking poisonous methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas into the air around Bhopal, India. Within hours bodies were piling up in the streets as 3,800 people dropped dead in a nearby slum, and nearly half-a-million people had been exposed to the toxic cloud.

The Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), which ran UCIL, tried to deflect attention away from the low health-and-safety standards at the plant, and instead, tried to blame either Sikh terrorists or failing that, their own Indian subcontractors for the deadly leak.

Eventually a Supreme Court ruling forced it to accept responsibility and ordered the company pay out $470 million, a relatively small sum, considering the scale of the long-term damage to survivors and contamination of the local soil and water supply.

Estimates of the death toll vary. The government said 5,295 people died but activists placed the figure as high as over 20,000 deaths.

PEPCON disaster in Nevada, 1988

The PEPCON disaster occurred in Henderson, Nevada on May 4, 1988.

The Pacific Engineering and Production Company of Nevada (PEPCON) plant specialized in the manufacture of a major component in solid propellant. The drama began while workers were leaving for lunch, as sparks from a repair crew welding torch set ablaze fiberglass infrastructure.

The flames quickly engulfed PEPCON’s stock of oxidizer, creating the “largest domestic, non-nuclear explosion in recorded history,”according to a NASA case study.

The blast was equivalent to one kiloton of TNT, approximately the strength of a tactical nuclear weapon.

Fortunately, only two people were killed as a result of the explosion and 372 more injured, while buildings were damaged within a 10-mile radius. Damages were estimated at $100 million.

Toulouse chemical factory explosion, 2001

On 21 September 2001, a storage unit containing ammonium nitrate exploded at the AZF chemical plant in Toulouse, at the time the largest fertilizer manufacturer in France. Twenty-nine people were killed and over 20,000 buildings, including homes and schools, were damaged in a blast that registered 3.4 on the Richter scale. Occurring a mere 10 days after the events of September 11, terrorism was widely suspected, though no conclusive evidence emerged.

In 2012, AZF boss Serge Biechlin was jailed for three years and slapped with a €45,000 fine for manslaughter for gross negligence relating to the case, after having been cleared earlier at a 2009 trial.

Ajka alumina plant accident, 2010

In October 2010, a tide of red sludge swept across the Hungarian countryside after a dam holding alkaline by-products from aluminum extraction at the Ajka plant burst, killing 10 people and leaving over 100 others with severe chemical burns.

Entire fields, towns and villages were buried under 1 million cubic meters (38 million cubic feet) of toxic red mud, with hundreds of homes rendered unlivable and having to be destroyed. The company behind the spill, Hungarian Aluminium (MAL), was fined a record $647 million, but continues operations to this day.

West Fertilizer Company explosion in Texas, 2013

On April 17, 2013, a massive explosion tore through the ammonium nitrate storage site at the West Fertilizer Company in Texas, sending a fireball nearly 100 feet (30m) into the air as firefighters battled to extinguish the flames. The blast was so powerful, it even registered as a 2.1 magnitude quake by the US Geological Survey.

Fifteen people were killed, twelve of which were volunteer firefighters making up a third of the local town’s fire department. Another 200 or so people were injured, while 500 families lost their homes.

READ MORE: Texas blast: Ammonium nitrate’s fertile history of devastation

In May 2016, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) confirmed that the blaze at the West Fertilizer Company was the result of an arson attack, though so far, no suspects have been arrested. Damage from the fire and explosion were estimated at $100 million.

Tianjin explosions in China, 2015

Apocalyptic scenes were seen at the Chinese port city of Tianjin on 12 August 2015, after a pair of massive explosions from a chemical warehouse ripped through nearby buildings and parking lots, killing 173 people. The blasts came from the Ruihai International Logistics facility, which was said to be storing 3,000 tons worth of hazardous chemicals including ammonium nitrate, potassium nitrate and sodium cyanide.

Nitrocellulose, a flammable compound stored at the site, caught fire in the dry summer conditions, the flames then spreading to tanks of ammonium nitrate, which is what led to the explosions, which were felt from many miles away.

As with the Texas explosion, the majority of victims were emergency responders, which included over a hundred firefighters and several police officers. In November 2016, judges jailed 49 corporate executives and government officials for negligence and corruption, that led to the colossal eruption.