Oil in the Water, Fire in the Sky: Responding to Technological/Environmental Disasters

Article excerpt

CRISIS MANAGEMENT

On April 20, 2010, a massive explosion killed 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. Survivors of this explosion recounted terrifying near-death experiences and mourned the loss of coworkers and friends who had perished. Shock and grief spread through small coastal communities composed mostly of fishers and oil workers. However, this was merely the beginning of the disaster: the ecological tragedy will cause long-term devastation to these vulnerable communities.

The oil spill resulting from the Deepwater Horizon explosion has been described as a rare and unprecedented event. However, oil spills are a recurring national problem. An average of 11.8 million gallons of oil spilled into U.S. waters each year from 1973 to 1990 (Etkin, 2001). The worst spill during this period occurred in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spilled 10.8 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound in Alaska. The volume of oil spilling into U.S. waters decreased after the passing of the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, which aimed to increase corporate liability for oil spills and improve shipping practices. An average of 1.5 million gallons of oil has spilled each year since 1990 (Etkin, 2001), yet oil spill volumes are on the rise again since the decrease in the 1990s (Ramseur, 2010). Almost 7 million gallons of oil were spilled as a result of Hurricane Katrina (Pine, 2006), and now the largest oil spill in U.S. history is impacting the same region.

Oil spills such as the ones previously described are classified as technological disasters since they generally result from some technological failure, human error, or negative externalities associated with industrialization. Thus, although not directly implied, technological disasters result from human failure and have a negative impact on the environment, ecosystem, and/or local community. Furthermore, technological disasters are not directly attributable to natural phenomena (e.g., earthquakes, tornados) or violent attack (e.g., school shooting, act of terrorism; Quarantelli, 1976).

In addition to oil spills, other types of technological disasters also have wreaked havoc on communities and ecosystems across the United States. Currently, 1,270 hazardous waste sites are included on the "National Priorities List," meaning that they pose a significant public health threat (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], 2010). The National Priorities List was established under the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or "Superfund Act," to aid in the cleanup of abandoned hazardous waste sites.

Congress passed the Superfund Act to increase environmental protection in the wake of the Love Canal disaster (U.S. EPA, 2000). In the 1960s and 1970s, residents of Love Canal, a small neighborhood in Niagara Falls, NY, began to report extraordinarily high rates of cancer, birth defects, miscarriages, chronic illness, and topical burns from exposure to groundwater. Upon investigation, noxious sludge was found welling up through cracks in basement foundations and chemical odors emanated throughout the community (Blum, 2008; Brown, 1979). It was eventually revealed that major sections of the community were constructed on or near an abandoned shipping canal that was filled with chemical waste and capped with clay. Even a public school that enrolled over 400 students was constructed in proximity to the chemical dump. During the construction of this school, leaking drums of waste were unearthed and a playground had to be relocated due to the surfacing of chemical waste after heavy rains and snowmelt (Colten 8c Skinner, 1996).

DIFFERENCES BETWEEN TECHNOLOGICAL/ECOLOGICAL DISASTERS AND OTHER DISASTERS

Long-term effects. Technological disasters such as oil spills and chemical waste exposure have a profound impact on affected communities. A review of 130 disasters in the United States suggests that technological disasters may produce greater long-term devastation to communities than natural disasters and mass acts of violence (Norris et al. …