Prepared by The University of Iowa Center for Human Rights (UICHR)*

Deep in the Gulf of Mexico, the work of the April 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil “spill” persists, “smothering coral formations, infecting the food chain, layering vast areas of the ocean floor with tarry deposits, and affecting life forms in ways that can only be estimated,” reports Earthjustice (a leading US nonprofit law firm dedicated to defending the human right to a clean and healthy environment). But oil from this three-months-four-billion-barrels hemorrhage (the worst in U.S. history and among the worst anywhere) was not the only contaminant released; nor were miles of beaches, wetlands, estuaries, and their wildlife habitats the only assets severely compromised. Applied to the Gulf’s waters at a rapid rate, without adequate testing, and in unprecedented amounts was the toxin-laden oil dispersant Corexit, which, together with the oil, hit the Gulf’s fishing and tourism industries hard, as it did the socioeconomic and environmental assets of the neighboring human populations. And this is not the first time that industrial disasters—typically called “accidents” but commonly the result of negligence, incompetence, or even deliberate policy—have wrought havoc with lives and cultures, challenging the human rights and other safeguards meant to protect them. One may find some solace in the words of an engineer working to fix problems at China’s controversial Three Gorges Dam, the largest dam in the world, which is slowly but steadily altering the local ecosystem. He said, “We simply cannot sacrifice the environment in exchange for temporary economic gain.” But man-made industrial disasters continue.

 11 — Italian communities north of Milan directly affected by a July 1976 atmospheric release of manufactured dioxin (a component of Agent Orange) over the heads of tens of thousands of villagers unaware that a nearby plant manufactured the chemical, which, upon release, instantly poisoned soil and water, despoiled dependent crops and livestock, and endangered human health and life both immediate and long term—a calamity (the “Seveso Disaster”) that, thanks to the swift reaction of authorities, led to a European Union regulation (the Seveso Directive), now a central guideline for European countries managing industrial safety, requiring companies to provide information on hazards to the public and to provide appropriate safety measures in the event of another accident (United Nations University 1996)

 105 — Persons killed in a 2003 oil pipeline explosion in the oil-rich Niger Delta, one of many harmful incidents, deadly and otherwise, at the hands of Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, and other major oil companies operating in the region over the years, commonly in association with the state-owned National Petroleum Company, and without serious reprimand by the Government of Nigeria, spilling over 13 million barrels of oil into the local environment between 1970–2000 (roughly 300 spills per year, 7000 total), devastating local ecosystems via careless drilling practices and otherwise negatively impacting 75% of the 27 million people living in the Niger Delta who depend on the environment to sustain themselves—an ongoing catastrophe addressed by renowned author, environmentalist, and human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, whom the Nigerian junta, with covert oil company support, hanged in 1995 along with eight other protestors because of their protests, a travesty only partly redeemed by Royal Dutch Shell’s 2009 agreement to settle a $15.5 million lawsuit concerning Shell’s alleged collusion with the Nigerian junta in organizing the execution of the nine environmental activists (Business Pundit 2010; Center for Constitutional Rights 2009; EarthRights International 2009; Guardian 2009; BBC News 2003)

150 — Community members injured when toxic sludge oozed from a burst reservoir into the Hungarian village of Kolontar, killing seven people, forcing the evacuation of 800 more (who feared sustaining severe burns or being carried off by the waste), polluting the Danube, and making the village uninhabitable—all because no one ensured the villagers’ safety; yet without timely repair, the reservoir soon reopened, leaving the local community vulnerable to another incident that could have similar or worse consequences costly to human life and health and damaging to private property and public infrastructure (BBC 2010; Reuters 2010)

 500 — Tons of caustic soda, hydrogen sulfide, and other chemical waste surreptitiously discharged at twelve open-air sites around Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire in August 2006 from a ship chartered by the Dutch shipping company Trafigura Beheer BV because the company did not want to pay a $1,000 per cubic meter safe-disposal fee charged at the port in Amsterdam from which the ship set sail, a decision that left 17 people dead and more than 100,000 in search of medical attention, among them 40,000 known to have suffered a range of illnesses from exposure to the chemicals (e.g., diarrhea, swollen stomachs, nausea, vomiting, headaches, skin damage)—for which the shipping company refused to admit liability or be subject to any future claims or prosecutions in exchange for a $198 million settlement payment to the Côte d’Ivoire for a compensation fund, the construction of a waste treatment plant, and assistance in recovery operations (Business and Human Rights Resource Center 2006)

 6,027 — Chinese coal mine workers killed in 2004 (an average of 16 deaths daily), including those killed by an October 20 explosion in the DaPing coal mine (a state-owned company in central China’s Henan province), which claimed 148 lives, China’s second deadliest mine accident after the Chenjiashan mine disaster of November 2000, when an underground explosion killed 162 workers in the southern province of Guizhou—these and other Chinese mine disasters being the result of poor safety standards and governmental inattention despite widespread reporting (AP/CBS News 2005; AP/USA Today 2004; China Daily 2004; China Labour Bulletin 2004)

 25,000 — Estimated lives lost due to a 1984 gas leak from the American-owned Union Carbide Pesticide Plant in Bhopal, India, exclusive of some 500,000 individuals who have suffered birth defects, blindness, early menopause, and countless other debilitating conditions in the years since, an industrial disaster considered the largest in history, partially relieved 25 years later when, in 1989, Union Carbide reluctantly paid over $470 million in settlement—but offset in June 2010 by a minimal two-year prison sentence against seven men held accountable for the disaster, a sentence yet to take effect and the “prime suspect” (Warren Ghoeghan) yet to be extradited (leading one Hamidi Bi to express outrage at the fact that “[n]obody knows how we suffered experiencing death so closely everyday . . . the rich and influential have wronged us. We lost our lives and they can’t spend a day in jail?”) (Business Pundit 2010; MSNBC 2009; BBC 2004; American University 1997)

 30,000 — Residents of Ecuador’s Oriente rainforests who filed suit against Texaco (now Chevron) for allegedly knowingly dumping into the Amazon River billions of gallons of toxic waste stemming from some 300 oil wells in the region, devastating the general environment by fouling other rivers and streams, contaminating the soils and ground water, poisoning the air, and creating “black rain” via the burning of gas and waste oil into the atmosphere and in the process destroying the lives and culture of the Oriente’s indigenous inhabitants—Texaco having followed practices in Ecuador that it knew to be illegal in the United States decades prior to the commencement of its drilling in the Amazonian region, the devastation being “[t]he result of a decision made by Texaco to install a type of drilling process that would lead to a systematic dumping of toxins” (Justice.Net 2011; Chevron Toxico: The Campaign for Justice in Ecuador 2010; NY Times 2010; Washington Post 2003)

 507 million — Final award to be divided among the 33,000 commercial fishermen and subsistence users harmed by the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill of 11 million gallons of oil in Prince William Sound on the coast of Alaska, reduced from a $5 billion jury award after 20 years of litigation—the accident having caused the loss of an estimated 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, 22 killer whales, and an unknown number of salmon, red herring, and other ocean species—thus considered the most environmentally damaging oil spill in history (Seattle Post Intelligencer 2008; BBC news 1999)


* Copyright ©2011 by The University of Iowa Center for Human Rights (UICHR). For further information on human rights generally, please visit the UICHR web site.