With the widespread emphasis on green technology, reduced pollution, and sustainable operations that has taken shape within the business world for the last 15 years, many privately owned companies have realigned their goals and practices in order to conform to more eco-friendly standards. But hey, (completely preventable) accidents happen. Here are some documented environmental catastrophes, courtesy of major corporate players.
American Electric Power
The verdict is in: AEP generates more air pollution than any other U.S. corporation. That’s according to a June 2013 report from the Political Economy Research Institute at UMass-Amherst, which found that the company produced roughly 130 million metric tons of CO2 emissions in 2011 ― 4 million tons more than the second worst air polluter, Duke Energy Corp.
Just one month earlier, AEP publicly disputed another study (this time from the National Resourced Defense Council) that claimed the company’s 26 plants were collectively responsible for 3,200 employee deaths and more than 20,000 asthma attacks. The NRDC report also found that health problems stemming from workplace conditions also led to more than one million lost work days and $24 billion in economic losses.
The company behind the iPhone and Macintosh computers has a fairly clean track record in the U.S. ― but its Chinese operations are apparently a much different story. In 2011, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing released a scathing report that accused Apple factories throughout China of egregious pollution levels. More than two dozen facilities were found to have “environmental problems”, according to The New York Times, while most of the facilities did not “properly dispose of hazardous waste”.
The IPE’s indictment came in the wake of other controversies at Apple’s Chinese factories. Several locations ― including the notorious Foxconn facility in Shangdong Province ― reported numerous riots and high suicide rates among workers, and more than 130 employees were injured by toxic chemicals used to manufacture the iPhone at a factory near the city of Suzhou.
To an extent, most mining companies are heavy polluters ― but few have shown as much contempt for the people who make their homes near established mines than Barrick Gold, the world’s largest gold extractor. In 2007, Barrick Gold entered into a partnership with the Chilean and Argentine governments to launch a large-scale mining operation in the mountainous border region of Pascua Lama. At the time, government officials from both countries believed the project would benefit Pascua Lama by creating jobs and bolstering the local economy.
However, the most noticeable effect six years later is a steady supply of practically undrinkable water caused by acid leakage from one of the mine’s main plants ― despite Barrick Gold’s assurances that environmental problems of this magnitude would not occur. The Chilean government has fined the company $16 million and forbade operations from continuing until the water pollution was addressed. As of September 2013, the Pascua Lama mine is back to full operations ― and Barrick Gold gets to keep its environmental permit.
Shell/Royal Dutch Petroleum
British Petroleum (BP) was responsible for the largest oil spill in history when its offshore Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in April 2010, killing eleven workers and emptying roughly 4.9 billion barrels of petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico. The company earned public villification for the disaster, and many consumers have since boycotted BP in favor of other gas and oil providers.
But what if we told you that one of BP’s major competitors ― Shell ― was behind a similarly ghastly spill in 2008 that received far less press coverage, arguably due to the fact that American citizens and commerce were largely unaffected? After the Shell-owned trans-Niger pipeline burst in 2008, as many as 300,000 barrels of petroleum leaked into the West African river and roughly 75 square kilometers of surrounding mangrove forest were irrecovably tarnished. To addinsult to injury, 11,000 fishermen who made their living on the Niger permanently lost their livelihoods. It took Shell five years to offer what the company must have assumed was fair compensation ― £1,100 per person, roughly equivalent to $1,760 ― but this amount has been firmly rejected.
Some environmental debacles, no matter how catastrophic and irreversibly destructive, manage to fade from the headlines over time. Case in point: the Bhopal Chemical Disaster of 1984, which occurred when a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide (a Houston-based subsidiary of Dow Chemical) began leaking toxic gases into the atmosphere. Officially, 5,000 people were killed in the disaster ― but some activists speculate more than five times as many casualties occurred; meanwhile, as many as 500,000 local residents have suffered from a wide range of ailments, birth defects, and congenital conditions as a result of being exposed to the fumes.
When news of the leak first surfaced, Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson flew to Bhopal to view the damage firsthand, where he was promptly arrested by Indian authorities. He in turn posted bail, fled back to the U.S., and has since refused to return to India in order to face criminal charges. Meanwhile, seven Indian plant supervisors were charged and sentenced to two years in prison ― in 2010. Union Carbide eventually awarded a settlement of roughly $470 million, which, based on Bhopal’s current population, comes to just under $300 per metro resident.
Williams Companies, Inc.
In December 2012, a major hydrocarbon leak developed at the Williams Midstream natural gas plant near the town of Parachute in rural Colorado, and this led to massive amounts of benzene contamination in the local groundwater supply via nearby Parachute Creek. However, the leak was not revealed until March 2013, when monitoring wells recorded benzene levels ranging between 5,800 and 18,000 parts per billion; as a point of comparison, 5 parts per billion is considered safe for human consumption.
Three months later, The Denver Post reported that “1,500 cubic yards of petroleum-contaminated soil” were removed from the Parachute Creek site. Unfortunately, no penalties were imposed on Williams Companies, the Tulsa-based natural gas processing giant that owns the plant; DP noted that 179 oil and gas leaks occurred in Colorado between January and June 2013.