Industrial companies have never had an easy relationship with the public. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, when these behemoths were first born, they have been blamed for all manner of things, ranging from child labour to global warming. But it wasn’t till about 30 years ago that industrial companies were viewed not only as exploiters, but as contrary to the public interest. This change in perception was precipitated by a series of massive industrial disasters that were all preventable to a degree, and were all blamed on industrialists.

The Three Mile Island accident occurred in 1979. It was a partial core meltdown core in a pressurised water reactor of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania. Although there were no deaths, the accident captured the public imagination and solidified the efforts of the anti-nuclear campaign.

Five years later, what has become the worst industrial disaster of all time occurred in Bhopal, India. On the night of December 3 1984, a tank in a fertiliser factory containing methyl isocyanate, an extremely deadly substance, ruptured and covered the surrounding slums in a blanket of toxic gas. By the next morning, over 8 000 people were dead. Hundreds of thousands more were injured, and would die of the next months. What made this particular disaster even more horrific was the reaction of the company, Union Carbide, which owned the fertiliser factory where the accident happened. The company paid $470-million, which amounted to about $500 per victim, to the Indian government, then promptly refused to accept any further responsibility for the aftermath of the disaster. Today, the Union Carbide factory still stands, but the chemicals inside have never been cleaned up, so the toxic waste continues to leak into the nearby water systems. This water is used for cleaning, cooking and drinking by those who live around the factory. Union Carbide, now owned by the Dow Chemical Company has never claimed responsibility, saying that the leak was caused by sabotage, as opposed to the lax safety standards practised at the Bhopal factory.

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened just two years later, in 1986. It is the worst nuclear accident in history, having reached a level seven on the International Nuclear Event Scale (the Three Mile Island accident was a level five on the INE scale). A reactor in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant had a meltdown, resulting in a massive fallout over the surrounding areas and into the atmosphere. The radioactive could eventually spread over parts of Eastern, Western and Northern Europe. About 4 000 deaths are directly attributable to the Chernobyl disaster, which was caused by a peculiarity in the design of the reactor. After the accident, protesters took to the streets, decrying the dangers of nuclear energy. Politicians, never ones to let such an opportunity go by, took up the cry. Chernobyl effectively sounded the death knell for nuclear power.

In 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez hit Bligh’s Reef in the Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska, spilling an estimated 10,8-million US gallons, or a quarter of a million barrels of crude oil. In terms of spillage, this wasn’t the largest one, but the remoteness of the location made the clean up a slow affair, which made the Exxon Valdez spill the worst in terms of environmental damage. The disaster was blamed on faulty sonar systems, as well as overworked crew members who failed to steer the ship properly. Most significantly, this accident lead to the passing of the Oil Pollution Act.

Even though industrial accidents have continued to occur around the world, there has been a shift in perception. After 9/11, terrorists took up all the attention (the unhelpful thing being that you can’t really “clean” the terrorists up once and for all, like you would industrial accidents). And now we have the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Despite the gloriously incompetent Times Square car bomber, the attention of the world is back on industrial disasters. The Middle East must be sighing in relief.

These things are about perceptions. Bhopal was exacerbated by the tardy response of Union Carbide, and to a lesser extent, the Indian government. What made the Exxon Valdez oil spill such a powerful statement were those images of seals and birds floundering in oil. It was heartbreaking.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is currently leaking oil into the Gulf of Mexico at an estimated rate of 1 100 000 US gallons of oil (25 000 barrels) a day and is probably going to eclipse the Exxon Valdez as the worst disaster of its type in history. The slick will cause untold damage to the environment and local fishing, tourism and shipping industries, should it reach the shore. What a perfect metaphor for the world’s fatal reliance on fossil fuels.

To their credit, British Petroleum, the company that everyone is blaming for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, has accepted blame and is willing to pay for legitimate claims.

Like Chernobyl and the Three Mile Island accident, I believe the Deepwater Horizon spill is going to drastically alter public opinion (and by extension, political opinion) on the dangers of offshore drilling. The government of California has already withdrawn support for drilling projects off the coast of California. What will be really interesting to see is whether the Republicans will dampen their support of the oil industry. Remember “drill baby, drill”?

Whatever the outcomes of this disaster, we can be assured of one thing: big industry is in the naughty corner again.


  • Sipho Hlongwane is a journalist and columnist for the Daily Maverick. He is an avid fan of jelly beans, Top Gear, Arsenal and thinks that South Africans tend to take themselves a little too seriously. [email protected]


Sipho Hlongwane

Sipho Hlongwane is a journalist and columnist for the Daily Maverick. He is an avid fan of jelly beans, Top Gear, Arsenal and thinks that South Africans tend to take themselves a little too seriously....

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