Timeline

Ecological Disasters

1958 – 2010

Industrial disasters around the world involving multinational corporations, such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, have caused irreparable health, environmental, and economic damages. Such tragedies have also led to lengthy legal challenges and prompted new global regulations.

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Oil from a leaking pipeline burns in Goi-Bodo, a swamp area of the Niger Delta, October 12, 2004.
Oil from a leaking pipeline burns in Goi-Bodo, a swamp area of the Niger Delta, October 12, 2004. Austin Ekeinde/Reuters
Niger Delta Oil Pollution

An estimated nine to thirteen million barrels of oil [PDF] are spilled in the Niger Delta over fifty years since commercial oil production begins there in 1958, mainly from oil operations jointly owned by Shell and the Nigerian government, making the delta one of the most polluted areas in the world. Other multinational oil company operations involved in spills include Chevron and Exxon Mobil. Civil unrest flares over how the government distributes oil wealth; and there are incidents of militants kidnapping and killing oil workers, blowing up pipelines, and stealing oil. Nigeria also faces unrest over extensive damage to fisheries as well as water and soil quality. In 2008, four Nigerian farmers file a lawsuit in a Dutch court against Shell, but the court dismisses most claims. In another case, a community affected by a 2010 Exxon spill demands the company pay $1 billion in damages. Shell says only a small percentage of the spills are from operations failures and that most are caused by sabotage and theft stemming from the country’s internal conflict. In 2009, the company settles a lawsuit accusing it of colluding with the government in the 1995 executions of six activists but it admits no wrongdoing.

A waste pit filled with crude oil left by Texaco drilling operations lies near the Amazonian town of Sacha, Ecuador.
A waste pit filled with crude oil left by Texaco drilling operations years earlier lies near the Amazonian town of Sacha, Ecuador, October 21, 2003. Lou Dematteis/Reuters
Ecuador’s Amazon Degradation

More than four hundred million barrels of toxic oil waste are released into watersheds from oil operations in the Amazon Rainforest over nearly thirty years, which the indigenous community contends causes widespread health problems. Indigenous communities sue for damages for cleanup in U.S. courts, but the case later moves to courts in Ecuador at Chevron’s request. Chevron argues Petroecuador, the state-owned oil firm it partnered with during that time period, is responsible for the environmental damage, and it files an international arbitration suit at The Hague against the Ecuadorian government for trying to avoid contractual responsibilities. In February 2011, Ecuador’s Supreme Court orders Chevron to pay $8.6 billion in damages, plus another $9 billion if the company does not apologize. But Chevron challenges the ruling. In 2018, a tribunal administered by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague rules in favor of Chevron, stating that the 2011 Supreme Court ruling was the result of fraud, bribery, and corruption. The court is still determining damages suffered by Chevron.

A crude oil waste pit, part of Oxy operations, near Jose Olaya, Peru.
A crude oil waste pit, part of Oxy operations, near Jose Olaya, Peru, 2003. Amazon Watch/Claus Kjaerby/Racimos de Ungurahui
Peru’s Amazon Degradation

An estimated nine billion barrels of oil wastewater is released into Amazonian watersheds, which members of Peru’s indigenous Achuar community say has caused unexplained diseases, tumors, skin ailments, and miscarriages from oil exposure. In 2007, the Achuar community sues U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum in U.S. courts for environmental and health damages caused by the pollution. Plaintiffs allege that the company ignored industry standards and violated U.S., Peruvian, and international law. Occidental says there is no evidence of detrimental health effects. In 2015, the two sides reach a settlement outside of court, the size of which has not been made public.

The Jaba River is still contaminated by mine runoff that has turn the river bed copper blue.
The Jaba River is still contaminated by mine runoff that has turned the river bed copper blue, May 2010. Scott Kroeker/East-West Center
Papua New Guinea’s Panguna Mine War

The residents of Bougainville Island allege large-scale environmental destruction from global mining conglomerate Rio Tinto’s Panguna copper mine, one of the world’s largest open-pit mines. After the mine is opened in 1972, about one billion tons of mining waste containing sulfur, arsenic, copper, zinc, cadmium, and mercury is dumped into the local river system, rendering a forty-mile portion of the system biologically dead, according to environmental activists. The situation gives rise in 1989 to a decade-long revolt by residents of Bougainville against the government over unanswered grievances. In 2000, island residents sue Rio Tinto in U.S. federal court under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows claims against companies that violate international law. Rio Tinto calls the suit’s allegations false and defamatory. The mine remains closed, but Bougainville’s government has signaled that it could be revived.

A four-year-old suffering from sores caused by a poisonous cloud of chemicals spread from the Swiss-owned firm.
A four-year-old suffering from sores caused by a poisonous cloud of chemicals spread from the Swiss-owned firm, October 29, 1976. Fornezza/AP Images
Italy’s Seveso Dioxin Cloud

A dioxin cloud from an accident at a chemical plant near Seveso, Italy, sickens at least two thousand people and causes eighty thousand animals to be slaughtered to keep the poison from entering the food chain. Five employees of the plant, a local subsidiary of Swiss cosmetics manufacturer Givaudan, are criminally prosecuted and convicted, and the company is required to pay 20 billion lire (roughly $13 million) in compensation following a settlement in 1980. The accident also prompts Europe to adopt the Seveso Directive in 1982, which regulates the manufacture and storage of hazardous materials.

The Amoco Cadiz sinking aground off the coast of Brittany, France.
The Amoco Cadiz ran aground off the coast of Brittany, France, on March 16, 1978. NOAA
France's Amoco Cadiz Tanker Spill

An Amoco tanker spills an estimated two million barrels of oil off the coast of France, polluting approximately two hundred miles of coastline and harming wildlife. The disaster occurs just one month after a meeting of the signatories of International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) that was aimed at expanding safety requirements for tankers to reduce the likelihood of pollution. In response to a suit brought by the French government, businesses, and private citizens, a U.S. district court orders Amoco to pay $200 million in cleanup costs and damages to the French government and towns. Enough countries ratify the MARPOL convention in 1982 and the new international rules for tankers go into force a year later, though it is unclear what effect the incident has on ratification.

An eleven-year-old born with six fingers on both hands, which activists claim is evidence of birth defects caused by legacy pollution from Union Carbide's pesticide plant in Bhopal.
An eleven-year-old born with six fingers on both hands, which activists claim is evidence of birth defects caused by legacy pollution from Union Carbide's pesticide plant in Bhopal. Reinhard Krause/Reuters
India’s Bhopal Cyanide Gas Leak

The leak of methyl isocyanate gas from a chemical plant operated by U.S. company Union Carbide in Bhopal, India, kills at least four thousand people, sickens an estimated half million people, and leaves survivors with numerous health ailments, including blindness, chronic respiratory trouble, and birth defects. The Indian government accepts a settlement of about $470 million from Union Carbide in 1989 that victims say is inadequate. New Delhi seeks the extradition of the company’s CEO from the United States for criminal prosecution, but Washington refuses and he never returns and dies in 2014. Victims continue to fight for compensation. Following the incident, the Indian government passes laws to address industrial accidents, including the 1986 Environment Protection Act and the 1991 Public Liability Insurance Act.

A perch lays poisoned by cyanide on the bank of the Tisa River.
A perch poisoned by cyanide on the bank of the Tisa River, February 12, 2000. Jaroslav Pap/AP Images
Romania’s Cyanide Spill

The Baia Mare gold mine in Romania spills more than thirty-four million gallons of cyanide into the Lupes, Somes, Tisza, and Danube Rivers. The spill decimates aquatic and plant life for dozens of miles, affecting local fishing industries and impeding access to drinking water for residents of Serbia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria for several months. In 2001, Hungary sues the mining company, a joint Australian-Romanian venture named Aurul, for roughly $200 million in damages to fisheries. A few months after the incident, mining resumes, but in 2005 a European Union judge bans mining on 85 percent of the site pending further investigation. Efforts to ban the use of cyanide in mining in Romania are repeatedly blocked. In 2010, the European Parliament proposes banning cyanide use in mining across the EU, but the ban is never implemented [PDF] by the European Commission.

Experts clean up toxic chemical slops dumped in the Ivory Coast's Akuedo village.
Experts clean up toxic chemical slops dumped in the Ivory Coast's Akuedo village, September 18, 2006. Luc Gnago/Reuters
Ivory Coast’s Toxic Waste Dumping

Dutch oil trader Trafigura transports four hundred tons of toxic waste consisting of caustic soda and petroleum residue from Amsterdam to Abidjan, dumping it into the Ivorian city’s waste system. The deaths of seventeen people and illnesses of as many as one hundred thousand people are linked to the waste dumping. Trafigura admits no wrongdoing [PDF] and blames a subcontractor for the incident. In 2007, the company agrees to pay about $195 million to the Ivorian government for cleanup and compensation for victims. In 2009, it pays another $45 million to thirty thousand victims who sued the company in a British court, but it continues to deny any wrongdoing.

Pelicans, covered in oil from BP's Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Pelicans, covered in oil from BP's Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Louisiana, June 6, 2010. Lee Celano/Reuters
Deepwater Oil Spill

An explosion on a BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, which was drilling in underwater depths of more than one mile, kills eleven people and causes the largest oil spill in U.S. history, estimated at nearly five million barrels. U.S. officials struggle to contain the spill, which lasts nearly three months, and the disaster causes an estimated $17.2 billion in damage to beaches, wildlife, fisheries, and tourism. The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama pressures BP into establishing a $20 billion fund to pay for damages and cleanup. It also places a six-month ban on deepwater oil drilling and creates a commission to study the spill. Following the commission’s recommendations, the administration imposes new regulations on drilling, though many of these are later removed under the Donald J. Trump administration.

Timeline
Ecological Disasters