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According to Impact Nottingham:

East Palestine, Ohio: Exploring The Worst Environmental Disaster in the History of the USA

On 3rd February 2023, a freight train carrying various potentially hazardous chemicals derailed in the town of East Palestine in Ohio, USA. This tragic environmental disaster is causing the residents of East Palestine to fear for their safety, as well as that of the town’s water and air. Thomas Martin explores the aftermath of the event, and solutions to prevent incidents like in the future.

A similar notion is echoed by activist Erin Brockovich:

Environmental activist Erin Brockovich has called the derailment of a train carrying hazardous chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, earlier this month a disaster “like one I’ve never seen.”

Brockovich, who discovered that groundwater contamination from Pacific Gas and Electric Company was sickening residents in the small town of Hinkley, Calif., in the 1990s, told “CNN This Morning” that the East Palestine incident feels reminiscent of the disastrous Hinkley case.

Is it true that the East Palestine train derailment can be considered the "worst environmental disaster in US history"?

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    This feels very subjective to me. The choice of metric to use is arbitrary and opinion-based. How could this be answered?
    – Oddthinking
    Feb 24, 2023 at 5:25
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    @Oddthinking is there any (reasonable) metric in which this is true?
    – TimRias
    Feb 24, 2023 at 9:11
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    @TimRias: It is the worst in terms of press coverage quality :-0 I think the quoted claims are just too vague though for this site. Almost like claiming X is the worst president ever. Feb 24, 2023 at 9:14
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    I think it is too early to tell. The real effects of an environmental disaster usually only become apparent years later.
    – Philipp
    Feb 24, 2023 at 13:19
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    I disagree with closing this. Subjective isn't the same as unknowable, the size of this event is fixed and unchanging, and "what even is an environmental disaster" borders on sea lioning.
    – CJR
    Feb 24, 2023 at 13:56

4 Answers 4

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I'm just going to use Wikipedia for this because the claim is obviously hyperbole.

This is East Palestine:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2023_Ohio_train_derailment

Of the 51 derailed cars, 11 of them were tank cars which dumped 100,000 gallons of hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride, benzene residue, and butyl acrylate.

Approximately 100 tons of hazardous material was released in a town of 5000 people. So far, no casualties.

This is Love Canal:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_Canal

During the 1940s, the canal was purchased by Hooker Chemical Company, which used the site to dump 19,800 t (19,500 long tons; 21,800 short tons) of chemical byproducts from the manufacturing of dyes, perfumes, and solvents for rubber and synthetic resins.

Approximately 20000 tons of hazardous material was released in a city of 50000 people. Three thousand people lived directly on a hazardous waste landfill including a school with hundreds of children. Extensively documented health effects.

This is Buffalo Creek:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buffalo_Creek_flood

The resulting flood unleashed approximately 132 million US gallons (500,000 cubic metres; 500 million litres) of black waste water, cresting over 30 feet (9.1 m) high, upon the residents of 16 coal towns along Buffalo Creek Hollow. Out of a population of 5,000 people, 125 were killed,[5] 1,121 were injured, and over 4,000 were left homeless

I don't even think East Palestine is the worst currently ongoing environmental disaster in the United States, either in impact or potential scope. I could provide probably hundreds of counterexamples in addition to these two.

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    I interpret your commentary as saying the metric of environmental disasters is the weight or volume of the pollutant and the number of people living nearby. Why is that the appropriate measure?
    – Oddthinking
    Feb 24, 2023 at 5:30
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    @Oddthinking the number of people affected would be a good measure, at least. This seems to be a proposed (?) set of metrics for measuring severity ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8630994 though you've definitely got a good point that this is at least somewhat subjective (though I feel like it's at least not fully subjective) Feb 24, 2023 at 9:24
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    Picking a nit: 100,000 gallons is about 400 metric tons (intentionally switching units), not 100. It's still a tiny amount compared to Love Canal or Buffalo Creek. Feb 24, 2023 at 10:44
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    hazardous materials cannot be compared like that. I would bet the chemical by-products were orders of magnitude less dangerous than the vinyl chloride and others released in Ohio. The future will tell how many cancers will occur.
    – Shautieh
    Feb 24, 2023 at 13:38
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    @fyrepenguin: that criteria is for "natural disasters", not environmental ones, so YMMV if that's the best metric. How would you compare an oil spill in which some people died but released 1/10 of the amount that another did, in which nobody died, etc. Feb 24, 2023 at 18:58
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It certainly was a nasty disaster, but the worst environmental disaster in US history? That is extremely dubious. That claim is just newsies and others wanting to get top headlines. Think back to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Three Mile Island disaster, the Dust Bowl, Love Canal, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the list goes on and on. We won't know the full extent of the damage from the East Palestine train derailment for years. To immediately call it the worst environmental disaster in US history is at best premature, and more likely is plain old headline-grabbing newsiness.

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    Was Three Mile Island, say, worse? How did you determine that?
    – Oddthinking
    Feb 24, 2023 at 5:35
  • @Oddthinking: well, the DH spill was at least claimed by some (other) press to be "the biggest" vice.com/en/article/884z93/… and even "the worst" deccanherald.com/content/75657/… Feb 24, 2023 at 9:22
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    @Oddthinking Exactly. Regarding the East Palestine train derailment, we don't yet know how many lives will be lost or shortened, how many people will be displaced, how much money recovery will cost. To say this was the worst is premature, and I doubt that it is anywhere close to the worst by any reasonable metric. Feb 24, 2023 at 9:22
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    I reject "lives lost" and "lives shortened" as appropriate measures for the severity of environmental disasters. Where is the consideration of biodiversity? habitat loss? climate change impacts?
    – Oddthinking
    Feb 25, 2023 at 4:19
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    @Oddthinking like it or not, people generally don’t care about anything other than themselves. Climate change only gets this much attention because it’s actually a threat to humans. Feb 27, 2023 at 12:06
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Apparently not by number of animals killed either.

The estimate I found for East Palestine is 43,000 animals killed, mostly minnows. In comparison, the Deepwater Horizon spill killed some "56,000–166,000 small juvenile sea turtles" and smaller number of other animals.

(And yeah, some other press headlines declared DH the "biggest" or "worst" environmental disaster in US history, FWTW. DH also features at #2 (behind the Nevada Test Site) in a certain listicle, but like with many such pieces, there's no clear criteria given for the ranking.)

OTOH, a CNN piece title "The Gulf spill: America's worst environmental disaster?" says:

Disasters are hard to rank and tricky to compare, historians say, but they cite several calamities that rival or surpass the [DH] Gulf oil spill in terms of lives lost or affected.

In 1889, for example, a poorly maintained dam collapsed, sending a wall of water crashing through Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The flood killed over 2,200 people and destroyed 1,600 homes.

Historians also cite what happened in blue-collar community of Love Canal, New York, which was built atop more than 20,000 tons of chemical waste and linked to high rates of cancer and birth defects. Hundreds of families were ultimately forced to flee.

In terms of permanently disrupting a way of life for the largest number of Americans, historians say, nothing compares to the 1930s Dust Bowl, a slow-motion disaster sparked by years of shortsighted farming practices and serious drought. Native grasses across the country's heartland were torn up, leaving little to hold the topsoil in place. When the winds kicked up, dust storms turning the sky black could be seen as far away as New York City. About 2.5 million people fled the Dust Bowl in one of the largest migrations in U.S. history. Families abandoned countless farms. That devastated the region's agriculture economy. [...]

In 1910 and 1911, though, more oil spilled onto land in California as a result of the Lakeview Gusher, the consequence of a 1910 well explosion in California's Central Valley. Nearly 380 million gallons are believed to have spilled over nearly a year and a half. That spill, though, directly affected relatively few people and had "a less complicated ecological impact," [Brian Black, an environmental historian at Penn State] said.

Fewer people may have been affected by Love Canal than by the Gulf spill, but petroleum is "not quite as corruptive as the toxins were at Love Canal," Black said; chemicals and radioactive materials can pose a potentially greater long term risk.

The bottom line: it's tough to rank environmental calamities.

"We can't appreciate the magnitude of (some disasters) until their results and implications have had time to play out," Black said.

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    Exxon Valdez spill killed an estimated 250,000 sea birds, dwarfing the number killed in the DH spill.
    – shoover
    Feb 24, 2023 at 23:56
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While it is somewhat a matter of opinion what disaster was worst, there are clear examples that were much worse. I'll just mention one.

The 1944 liquefied natural gas tank explosion, also in Ohio:

About 131 dead.

79 houses and 2 factories destroyed.

enter image description here

Image source

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    This was a disaster but it didn't impact the environment on the long term.
    – Shautieh
    Feb 24, 2023 at 13:32
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    @Shautieh for long term, the Hanford nuclear site is probably the worst in the US.
    – DavePhD
    Feb 24, 2023 at 13:53
  • @Shautieh How about the Centralia mine fire in Pennsylvania? That happened in 1962, and it's still on fire today, and likely will be for another few centuries. Zero fatalities, but for long term environmental impact, it's one of the most enduring... Feb 24, 2023 at 14:50
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    Also in Ohio, the Cuyahoga River caught fire at least a dozen times between 1868 and 1969 due to industrial pollution. The last fire in 1969 helped spur the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. While the pollution has since been curtailed, the environmental impacts of that repeated pollution continue to this day. River sediments remain laden with PCBs, for example. Feb 27, 2023 at 9:21

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