Wave Goodbye: 10 Of The World’s Worst Toxic Floods

The recent red deluge of alkaline sludge that flooded news channels (and some unfortunate towns in Hungary) is only the latest in a lengthy legacy of toxic floods that have destroyed land, lives and livelihoods. From molasses to manure and more, these 10 thick, sick man-made tsunamis unleashed liquid environmental apocalypses of near-Biblical proportions. The more you Noah!

London Beer Flood, London, UK

Drowning in beer… a dream for some but a cruel fact for 9 people who died as a result of the London Beer Flood. The disaster occurred on October 17th, 1814, in the London parish of St. Giles, when a huge wooden fermentation vat containing over 135,000 imperial gallons (511,920 L) of beer belonging to the Meux and Company Brewery on Tottenham Court Road ruptured. The vat, said to be “a 22-foot-high monstrosity” held together by 29 large iron hoops, exploded with such force that surrounding smaller vats buckled in a domino effect. It’s estimated that up to 323,000 imperial gallons (1,470,000 L) of beer flooded the surrounding neighborhood. St. Giles was a notoriously poor part of the city and many of the homeowners rented out their basements to indigent families – basements that quickly filled with beer.

(image via: Girl Meets Food)

As mentioned, 9 people died in the London Beer Flood – 8 by drowning and one other a few days later from alcohol poisoning. It’s said that the area reeked of spoiled beer for weeks afterward and some of the victims’ families put drowned corpses on display to make a bit of money; beer money, most likely. The above image is of the manor house at Toten Hall, drawn in the comparatively drier year of 1813.

Boston Molasses Flood – Boston, MA, USA

(images via: Roadside America, Damn Interesting and Everyman)

January 15, 1919: a day that will live in infamy. Well, not so much… unless, of course, you were one of the 21 Bostonians killed and 150 injured (not including horses and dogs) in the Boston Molasses Flood. Following what witnesses stated was an ominous, low rumbling sound, a sticky, sickly sweet wave of molasses oozed at speeds of up to 35 mph (56 kph) through the streets surrounding the Purity Distilling Company. Turns out a huge, shoddily built steel tank holding up to 2,300,000 US gallons (8,700,000 L) of the brown goop had collapsed, rivets shooting out like bullets from a machine gun.

(images via: Goodreads, Last FM and Neatorama)

Stephen Puleo, author of Dark Tide, described the event known colloquially as The Boston Molassacre thusly: “Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage. Here and there struggled a form – whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was… Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings – men and women – suffered likewise.” Oh, the humanity! Er, sorry, got a little carried away there. Anyway, they say that the city’s North End reeked of molasses for years and almost a century later, one can still detect a hint of a sultry, sugary aroma on hot summer days.

River Of Toxic Foam, Brazil

(images via: National Geographic)

Fast-forwarding to the modern era, the Tietê River runs through São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, picking up untold amounts of industrial and household wastewater as it goes. When winter droughts are severe (the winter of 2010 was the driest since 1943) and the river level drops, the pollutants become more concentrated and this leads to spectacular, shore to shore effusions of foam when the water is aerated by natural rapids and man-made dams. The photo set shown here was taken at Pirapora do Bom Jesus, 33 miles (54 km) downriver from São Paulo.

(image via: National Geographic)

Though efforts are being made to treat pollution at its many sources in the São Paulo area, progress is slow due to political and financial roadblocks. In the meantime, the foam continues to billow on the Tietê, irregardless of the sprinkling systems set up on bridges traversing the river. On windy days, clumps of foam saturated with toxic Hydrogen Sulfide form a bizarre blizzard that negatively affects the plants, animals and people living near the river’s shores.

Oceanview Farms Hog Waste Spill, NC, USA

(images via: Treehugger, DefMo and Tipping Point Blog)

Living near a large North Carolina hog farm is no fun at the best of times, which is usually on days when the thousands of hogs and their expansive, odoriferous manure lagoons are downwind. Then there are other days, such as June 21st of 1995 when the side of an 8-acre hog waste lagoon at Oceanview Farms ruptured. Nearly 25 million gallons of hog waste flooded out into area streams, across farmers’ fields and down local streets and highways. “When they built this thing they assured us that it was state-of-the-art — that it wouldn’t even leak,” said area resident and retired farmer Sidney Whaley. “Now the woods and fields around here are just coated with hog manure. What a mess.”

(image via: MNN)

Considering the number of large hog lots (as factory pig farms are known) in North Carolina, it’s a wonder that the state has suffered only one major lagoon spill. On the other hand, hog manure CAN be used in a constructive manner: such as the Iowa farmer who spelled out a birthday message for his wife by carefully spreading 120,000 pounds of manure on a selected meadow. I’m sure she was happier than a pig in… well, let’s just say she was happy.

Los Frailes Mine Toxic Dam Breach, Spain

(images via: WISE Uranium Project, BBC and Cerm3)

The Los Frailes iron pyrite mine, located near the Spanish city of Seville and run by Canada’s Boliden Limited, stored tailings and waste slurry in a dammed pond. The tailings contained toxic heavy metals including arsenic and cadmium. On April 25th, 1998, the tailings dam at the Los Frailes mine failed at a known weak point and up to 5.5 million cubic meters of poisonous slurry poured into the nearby Rio Agrio.

(images via: WWF and ASCAN1970)

Besides swamping the river, several thousand hectares of farmland were covered by the toxic, radiating fan of mine slurry. Prompt action by the Spanish government prevented the mine waste from penetrating the heart of the Doñana National Park located downstream, though some damage was noted. The park, one of Europe’s largest, had previously been named a UN World Heritage Area and its environmentally sensitive wetlands are an important stopover for many rare species of migrating birds.

Coal Slurry Toxic Sludge Flood, Kentucky, USA

(images via: Salon, DailyKOS, Kenny’s Sideshow and OnEarth)

Coal mining has been the lifeblood of America’s Appalachian states for centuries but on occasion an accident occurs that takes life away. Such was the case on Oct. 11th, 2000 in the small mining town of Inez, Kentucky, when a Martin County Coal waste reservoir as big as 306 Olympic-size swimming pools sprang a leak that rapidly widened. Over the next 6 hours, 300 million gallons of viscous liquid coal waste sludge had escaped the reservoir, ending up in the Big Sandy River. Ten days later the poisonous plume had entered the Ohio River – over its 75-mile (120 km) long path it left 1.6 million dead fish, washed out roads and bridges, and contaminated the freshwater used by 27,623 people.

(image via: Paul Corbit Brown/pcbphoto)

Not only did the EPA declare the Inez coal sludge spill to be the largest environmental catastrophe in the history of the southeastern USA, the Inez disaster was almost 30 times the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill. In the aftermath of the disaster, political forces friendly to the coal industry swung into action: the lead investigator was replaced by a career MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Administration) executive who closed the case a mere week after he took over. The reservoir’s owner, Massey Energy, paid minimal fines to the federal government and insists to this day the disaster was an “act of God”.

Marks Dairy Farm Manure Spill, New York, USA

(images via: Factory Farming, NY/DEC and CBC)

Marks Dairy Farm, located near Lowville, New York, is one of the largest such facilities in Lewis County with 4,500 dairy cows kept in close quarters. As its estimated a single dairy cow produces about 25 pounds of manure each day, well, you do the math – and we’re not even considering the daily urine output of almost 5,000 cows. All this waste has to go somewhere and in the case of the Marks Dairy Farm manure spill, it was a containment lagoon. On August 10th, 2005, the earthen walls of the manure lagoon collapsed and 3 million gallons of liquid cow waste poured into the Black River.

(images via: New York Times, St. Croix Alliance for Environmental Sustainability and NRCS)

New York state environmental officials estimate that the manure spill killed upwards of 200,000 to 250,000 fish, including popular sport and food species such as bass, pickerel, pike, trout, and walleye. Marks Dairy Farm is currently facing more than $2 million in fines related to the spill and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has not ruled out the laying of additional fines. In the meantime, Marks Dairy Farm continues to operate. Got milk?

Hurricane Katrina Toxic Flood, New Orleans, USA

(images via: Greenberg Rants, Subversify and Puppetgov.com)

Hurricane Katrina was one of the worst natural disasters to strike the United States in modern times. After the storm swept across New Orleans at the end of August, 2005, it left broken sewers, flooded industrial plants and dead bodies in its wake. Toxic bacteria, chemicals and heavy metals poisoned the stagnant water overlying huge swathes of New Orleans – and the water simply sat for weeks in the lowest areas of the city.

(images via: Visual Futurist, Affrodite and HurricaneKatrina.com)

“Human contact with the floodwater should be avoided as much as possible,” announced EPA administrator Stephen Johnson a week after Katrina’s storm surge had overwhelmed the levees along the city’s Ninth Ward. The seriousness of Johnson’s warning was realized when at least three deaths were found to be directly attributable to contact with the fetid water that subsumed entire neighborhoods.

TVA Toxic Fly Ash Flood, Tennessee, USA

(images via: Environmental History and io9)

Old King Coal, you’re a dirty old soul… yes, it’s another coal-related toxic flood, this time in Tennessee. Early in the morning on December 22nd, 2008, a containment dike at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tennessee, USA ruptured allowing 1.1 billion gallons (4.2 million m³) of coal fly ash slurry to escape into the surrounding region. As much as 300 acres (1.2 km2) of the surrounding land was inundated with toxic fly ash (a byproduct of coal-fired power plants), in some places up to 6 feet (2m) deep.

(images via: Concrete Construction, Knox News and Treehugger)

The spill, said to be the largest accidental fly ash release in American history, significantly raised levels of toxic heavy metals including arsenic, copper, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel, and thallium in river water used as a fresh water source by area residents. Six month after the disaster only 3% of the affected area had been cleaned up.

Here’s a video showing the extent of the disaster – what’s most shocking is that it just goes on, and on, and on.

TVA Coal Ash Disaster Dec 22 2008, via Mountainjustice

Toxic Red Sludge Flood, Hungary

(images via: MSN and MNN)

Roll tide!… Cool in Alabama, not so much in Hungary where the mother of all red tides rolled through seven Hungarian villages, covering the land with toxic, alkaline bauxite residue. Oh, umm, it’s also slightly radioactive. When it rains it pours, huh? Residents are indeed praying against any dry spells as scientists warn carcinogenic dust storms could ravage a wide region of the east European nation once the toxic sludge dries.

(image via: AOL News)

Latest reports indicate the government is taking over the alumina plant responsible for the red sludge flood – those familiar with industrial practices in the former communist bloc will likely cringe at that news.

(images via: TMCnet, Hurriyet Daily News and Sydney Morning Herald)

A more immediate worry is that bad weather may spark a second sludge flood. According to Zoltan Illes, Hungary’s state secretary for environmental protection, “Once the rain is here, the remaining sludge will be washed out and the dam’s northern section is going to break away. This is imminent. Once the wall breaks down, the sludge will start flowing again.” Geez Zoltan, don’t sugarcoat it, OK?

Here’s a video of the original Red Sludge Flood in progress. Keep it in mind the next time you’re walking in the rain and a passing car splashes your pants – things could be much, much worse:

Toxic sludge spill swallows towns, via RussiaToday

(image via: Big Blue Tech)

Floods, whether factual or mythical, have affected the course of human history since humanity first walked the earth – or mud, as the case may be. The 2004 Christmas Tsunami was a reminder that nature’s fury remains unabated in the face of all our technological achievements. Even worse, it seems our industrial society is more than capable of producing disastrous and deadly floods on its own. How long can YOU hold your breath?


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