The Real Numbers Behind Man-made Environmental Disasters

The costs of disasters are not isolated to the cleanup. All disasters have lasting effects on the communities nearby.

As technology develops and resource needs grow, so does humanity's capability to create large-scale environmental disasters. The true cost of these man-made disasters affects a multitude of areas and is often not fully revealed until much later.

Cleanup Costs
The initial costs of disasters are the cleanup costs -- how much must be spent to attempt to get the area back to normal. These costs can vary widely, depending on the severity and type of disaster.

  • The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: The explosion on oil company BP's Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 workers and spilled more than 5 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Cost to clean up: $14 billion in 2012.
  • Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: The cargo ship wrecked against a reef and dumped about 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, off the coast of Alaska. Cost to clean up: $2.1 billion in 1989.
  • Love Canal: Industrial chemicals dumped by the Hooker Chemical company oozed through the ground of the working-class Love Canal section of Niagara Falls, exposing citizens to the more than 80 industrial chemicals that were buried beneath the area. Cost to clean up: $400 million over 21 years.
  • Libby Mine Asbestos Contamination: Until closure in 1990, vermiculite was mined 6 miles north of Libby, Mont., which contained a particularly toxic version of asbestos. The citizens and miners of Libby were exposed to asbestos through the air and the products for decades. Cost to clean up: $250 million in 2008, the largest cash settlement in EPA Superfund history, won from the W.R. Grace Corporation.

Costs to Communities
The costs of disasters are not isolated to the cleanup. All disasters have lasting effects on the communities nearby.

  • Livelihood: Nearly one in five homeowners don't have enough insurance to rebuild their homes after a disaster. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Alaska lost substantial revenue. More than $300 million of economic harm was done to the 32,000+ people whose livelihood depended on commercial fishing. Tourism decreased by 35 percent in southwest Alaska the year after the spill. Two years after the spill, losses to recreational fishing were estimated at $31 million. The Gulf Coast suffered similar setbacks after the Deepwater Horizon spill. Between 2009-2010, the Gulf of Mexico reported a 39 percent decline in commercial fishing landings overall, representing a $62 million loss in dockside sales, and 29 percent of people with plans to visit Louisiana canceled or postponed their trips due to the oil spill.
  • Health: In Libby, Mont., the exposure to asbestos from the mine killed an estimated 400 people and sickened more than 2,000. Love Canal citizens suffered chemical burns, miscarriages, birth defects, cancers, and auto-immune diseases from exposure to toxic chemicals.

Costs to Environment and Wildlife
Wildlife and the environment are the true victims of man-made environmental disasters. In many cases, damaged ecosystems result in thousands of deaths.

  • After the Exxon Valdez spill, the Alaskan environment was heavily damaged. Estimated wildlife causalities: 25,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 1,000 harlequin ducks, 900 bald eagles, 300 harbor seals, and up to 22 killer whales. Prince William Sound lost 28 percent of its potential stock of pink salmon. Oil impacted nearly 1,300 miles of shoreline, and 12 years after the spill (2001), oil could still be found on 50 percent of 91 randomly selected beaches.
  • The Deepwater Horizon spill damaged the Gulf Coast environment, although the full extent may not be known for years. Nearly 8,000 birds, sea turtles, and marine mammals were found dead or injured in the six months after the spill.

Costs to Corporations
The corporations responsible for environmental disasters are held monetarily accountable for the damages and also suffer losses in public opinion and stockholders.

  • After the Deepwater Horizon spill, BP committed billions of dollars to restore its reputation and to account for damages: $179 million was committed to Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi for regional and national tourism campaigns; $82 million was committed to Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi for state-led seafood testing and marketing programs (the Gulf Coast holds about 18 percent of U.S. commercial seafood landings); $105 million was committed to the Gulf Region Health Outreach Program to improve the availability, scope, and quality of health care in Gulf communities; $100 million was committed to establish a fund through the Baton Rouge Area Foundation for unemployed rig workers who are affected by the moratorium on deepwater drilling; $2.394 billion was committed to the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation over a period of five years; and $10,692,165,749 in legitimate claims was paid for damages from the accident as of March 31, 2013, and counting.

Disasters Can Be Prevented
The tragedy is that these disasters could have been prevented. If you're interested in creating positive change for the earth and its inhabitants and maybe stopping the next environmental disaster, the online Master in Environmental Law and Policy or online LLM in Environmental Law from Vermont Law School can give you the understanding and skills you need to make a difference.

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