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Environmental management and organisations
Environmental management and organisations

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13 Environmental disasters

The years following World War II have been marked by a series of accidents that combine concerns about human health and safety and environmental protection. The litany of major events, with significant environmental consequences, have contributed to the demands for synchronous human and environmental protection, and become an important factor in shaping legislative and administrative responses. Some of these are shown below in Table 4.

Table 4 Environmental disasters

Seveso, Italy

(10 July 1976)

Following an accident at a chemical plant in Seveso, Italy, manufacturing pesticides and herbicides, a dense vapour cloud containing tetrachlorodibenzoparadioxin (TCDD) was released from a reactor used for the production of trichlorophenol. Within days some 3000 animals were found dead, leading to emergency slaughtering of eventually 80 000 animals to prevent TCDD entering the food chain. Almost 450 people were found to have skin lesions. The accident led to the European Seveso directives 82/ 501/ EEC, 96/ 82/ EC and 2012/ 18/ EU (termed Seveso I, II and III, respectively). These apply to around 10 000 industrial establishments where dangerous substances are used or stored in large quantities. Organisations must now have safety management systems in place to avoid major accidents.

Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, USA

(28 March 1979)

The partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power station in Pennsylvania led to a release of radioactive gases and iodine. Although the human and environmental impacts are disputed, the event led to changes in US Nuclear Regulatory Commission policing and requirements. Some observers quote this accident as being responsible for the decline in building new nuclear reactors and subsequent changes in global energy policy. Others dispute this and point instead to Chernobyl several years later.

Bhopal, India

(2‑3 December 1984)

A gas leak from the Union Carbide India Ltd plant on the night of 2–3 December 1984, killed some 3500 people in the vicinity. Later calculations indicate that up to 16 000 died from related illnesses over the next years. The case became a protracted legal battle and raised doubts about global corporations and responsibilities. The incident led to the US Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act 1986, and thus indirectly to the EU Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (the Aarhus Convention).

Chernobyl, Ukraine

(26 April 1986)

The meltdown and subsequent explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine led to radioactive fallout across Western Europe. Thirty-one deaths are directly attributed to the accident, all among the reactor staff and emergency workers. An UNSCEAR (2008) report places the total confirmed deaths from radiation at 64 as of 2008. The Chernobyl Forum (2006) estimates that the eventual death toll could reach 4000 among those exposed to the highest levels of radiation (200 000 emergency workers, 116 000 evacuees and 270 000 residents of the most contaminated areas). This figure includes some 50 emergency workers who died of acute radiation syndrome, nine children who died of thyroid cancer and an estimated total of 3940 deaths from radiation-induced cancer and leukaemia. The event boosted the Soviet policy of Glasnost and led directly to the breakup of the USSR. It also led to the International Atomic Energy Authority’s Convention on the Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident (1986) and Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency (1987).

Exxon Valdez, Alaska, USA

(24 March 1989)

Between 260 000 and 750 000 barrels of crude oil were spilt following the grounding of the oil tanker Exxon Valdez off Prince William Sound, Alaska. This raised concerns about single-skinned tankers and US energy policy, and prompted the formation of CERES (Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies). Further investor-led action campaigned for a more corporately responsible approach to environmental and social risk. This eventually led to the US Oil Pollution Act 1990.

Brent Spar, North Sea

(30 April 1995)

Greenpeace activists boarded and occupied Brent Spar oil storage and tanker buoy to highlight concerns over planned marine disposal for the defunct vessel. The subsequent furore lead to the industry tacitly agreeing to dismantle such vessels onshore rather than pursue deep sea disposal. It is widely accepted that Greenpeace damaged their own credibility (and by extension the credibility of the environmental movement) by making inflated claims about pollution levels. This event strongly influenced the legislative framework for decommissioning offshore oil and gas facilities provided by Part 4 of the UK Petroleum Act 1998 – as amended by the Energy Act 2008.

Deepwater Horizon, Gulf of Mexico

(20 April 2010)

The explosion of the platform killed eleven workers and created an oil spill that continued to flow for three months. Estimates indicate some 5 million barrels of crude oil were released into the Gulf, which was considered the largest oil spill in history. Impacts range from damage to marine ecology including mutations, closure of fishing grounds, health impacts on local populations and loss of tourism. The platform owner, BP, has been fined $4.5 billion (the largest corporate fine in US history), faces thousands of further claims from groups and businesses and is potentially facing a further fine of $21 billion for pollution. The aftermath of the spill is still not known, but has led to changes in Government departments, new regulation and licensing of oil drilling, tighter environmental control, reviews of corporate liabilities, and establishment of a new National Ocean Council (see Simon and Owen, 2010).

Fukushima, Japan

(11 March 2011)

A major earthquake and resulting tsunami damaged the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, resulting in the reactor melting and widespread radioactive releases equivalent in scale to Chernobyl. This has led to global reviews of nuclear station design and safety and at least a temporary stall in investment in new nuclear reactors. Germany has committed to phasing out nuclear power by 2020, but Japan’s new government may re-commit to nuclear power generation.

These are well known international examples of where environmental management practices have been found wanting, even in ‘modern’, highly regulated installations. There are at least two implications for thinking about organisations and environmental management:

  1. Even though they are ‘global events’ it may be that many of these are not really that meaningful to you, and perhaps most people, unless you were directly affected in some way. For example, it is hard to know if the Exxon Valdez tanker accident in Alaska has had a direct impact on life in the UK, whereas concerns about radiation fallout from Chernobyl or Japan are perhaps more widespread.
  2. The events are largely attributable to a sequence of human errors and misjudgements by individuals and organisations – whether in terms of design, operation or maintenance of the facilities. The most recent event, the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima in 2011, is particularly interesting from a management point of view and is the focus of Activity 14.

Reading 1 Japan panel: Fukushima nuclear disaster ‘man-made’

Read this BBC News article [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] about the official report into the Fukushima event. Read the article and watch the video.

Activity 14 Fukushima news article

In your own words, summarise the main points of the BBC News article and the key findings of the report.


The article is about the official Japanese Parliament report into the events at the Fukushima plant. Although triggered by an earthquake and tsunami, the report concluded the accident was very definitely ‘man-made’ rather than an unavoidable ‘natural disaster’. The official report concluded that governance arrangements were poor, knowledge and training were insufficient, there was a lack of preparation by all organisations involved, evacuation was ineffective, and that existing ‘stopgap’ laws and regulations needed major review. In summary, the event was not a natural disaster that was ‘unavoidable’.

Far from being natural disasters, reports on the events described above tend to agree on the major causes – poor design, failure of management structures, poor operating standards, poor maintenance, and poor decision making in the lead up, duration and aftermath of many of these disasters. In other words, these are organisational failures, often arising from commercial and financial pressures, to manage known risks.