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10 worst man-made environmental disasters

As oil threatens the Gulf Coast, a list of 10 other disasters both forgotten and infamous, from the Dust Bowl to Bhopal.

NEW YORK — The oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico is now about the size of Puerto Rico. It's already reached the marshes of Louisiana. Oil-covered wildlife are starting to show up along the shores. Shrimp, fish and oyster harvest areas have been closed. Residents of Mississippi and Alabama are just waiting for the oil to hit.

As environmental calamity for the Gulf Coast appears imminent, GlobalPost looks at 10 other man-made environmental disasters — both forgotten and infamous — that could have been prevented.

(Read about the animal species most at risk from the Gulf oil spill.)

The Dust Bowl

The market-driven agricultural practices of U.S. farmers — plowing the virgin topsoil of the Great Plains and monoculture farming — led to one of the most disastrous ecological events in the nation’s history. Between 1930 and 1940, drought conditions and depleted farmland caused severe dust storms, some reaching 10,000 feet in the sky and called “Black Blizzards.” An estimated 2.5 million people were displaced and the catastrophe compounded the Great Depression, creating what some have called the country’s “most hard time.”

Dust bowl
Dust bowl of 1935 in Stratford, Texas. (NOAA Photo Library, Historic NWS collection)

Poison in Minamata Bay

From 1932 to 1968, the Chisso Corporation of Japan released industrial wastewater with high levels of mercury into the sea around the city of Minamata. The mercury poisoned the marine food chain and in turn thousands of residents became ill, leading to the discovery of a new neurological condition called Chisso-Minamata Disease. To date, more than 1,700 people have died from the disease, which can cause convulsions, loss of sight and hearing, paralysis, coma and death.

Ecocide in Vietnam

The Rainbow Herbicides showered over the jungles of Southeast Asia included Agent Blue, Purple and Pink, but Orange accounted for more than half of the nearly 20 million gallons of deadly chemicals used by the U.S. military between 1961 and 1971. The cost to human life was horrifying and the large-scale destruction of the region’s environment led to the coinage of the word “ecocide.”agent orange victimNguyen Thi Thanh, 53 and her daughter, Tran Thi Le Huyen, 26, who has spina bifida. (Geoffrey Cain/GlobalPost)

Death in Bhopal

In what is considered the world’s worst industrial catastrophe, 32 tons of deadly chemical gases leaked into the city of Bhopal, India, on Dec. 3, 1984, and an estimated 9,000 people died immediately from the invisible, air-born poison. The final death toll over the ensuing weeks has been estimated at 20,000 and hundreds of thousands of residents suffered permanent injuries. Today, the Union Carbide plant, the site of the disaster, remains a toxic waste site contaminating the groundwater in Bhopal.

Mahmuda Bee, a survivor of the Bhopal disaster. (Raj Patidar/Reuters)

Catastrophe at Chernobyl

First there was Windscale in 1957, then Three Mile Island in 1979, but when a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant in Ukraine had a meltdown in 1986, it became the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history. The United Nation’s Chernobyl Forum Report estimated the total number of deaths from cancer caused by the radiation exposure to be 4,000.

A kindergarten in the abandoned town of Pripyat, Ukraine. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Keep reading to learn about five more environmental disasters.