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10 Environmental Disasters to Remember on Earth Day

Ten tragic lessons in our history that should never be forgotten. And one climate tragedy in the making that needs our urgent help.

Ten tragic lessons in our nation's environmental history that should never be forgotten. And one climate destabilization tragedy in the making that needs our urgent help.

1. Extinction: Three Species Per Hour

According to a United Nations report released in 2007, our planet is at risk of losing three species per hour. Ahmed Djoghlaf, the head of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, declared: "We are indeed experiencing the greatest wave of extinctions since the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Extinction rates are rising by a factor of up to 1,000 above natural rates. Every hour, three species disappear. Every day, up to 150 species are lost. Every year, between 18,000 and 55,000 species become extinct."

For John J. Audubon, the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, the great American wild pigeon, would have ranked high: "The multitudes of Wild Pigeons in our woods are astonishing," Audubon wrote. "Indeed, after having viewed them so often, and under so many circumstances, I even now feel inclined to pause, and assure myself that what I am going to relate is fact. Yet I have seen it all, and that too in the company of persons who, like myself, were struck with amazement." A victim of hunting and industrial abuses, the last Passenger Pigeon died in an Ohio zoo in 1914.

2. Everything in Its Path: Mountaintop Removal

Imagine a quarter-mile strip of land stretching from Washington, DC until San Francisco: An estimated 800-1000 square miles of mountains and valleys have been eliminated from the American landscape since the launch of mountaintop removal strip mining operations in central Appalachia in 1970. Using explosives and heavy machinery, over 500 mountains in the oldest and one of the most diverse ranges on earth, have been clear cut, blown to bits and then toppled into valleys and streams with their waste since President Jimmy Carter signed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977, which shamefully recognized mountaintop removal as an approved mining technique.

Mountaintop removal has not only destroyed the natural heritage; it has ripped out the roots of the Appalachian culture and depopulated the historic mountain communities in the process.

It continues today as one of the most egregious human rights and environmental violations in the nation.

3. Donora Smog: Worst Air Pollution Disaster

With a severe temperature inversion, poisonous gases such as sulfuric acid and nitrogen dioxide were trapped in the stagnant air of the Donora mill town in the Monongahela River Valley in Pennsylvania. Released from various steel works and a zinc plant, whose sulfuric emissions had wiped out most vegetation within a half-mile, 20 people were killed and thousands stricken with respiratory and heart problems by the smog in the fall of 1948.

4. Don't Call Them Accidents: The TVA Coal Ash, Martin County Coal Slurry and Buffalo Creek Disasters

When the dike broke at the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash pond on December 22, 2008, and over 1.1 billion gallons of toxic sludge eased its way into tributaries and watersheds of the Tennessee River, former MSHA investigator Tony Oppegard had flashbacks to the largely overlooked Martin County, Kentucky coal slurry impoundment that broke on October 11, 2000, and dumped over 306 million gallons of toxic sludge into the tributaries of the Tug Fork River. Both dirty coal incidents and negligent handling wiped out aquatic life and contaminated the drinking water for thousands of residents.

As the worst environmental disasters in the eastern states in modern times, the two incidents didn't rank as "accidents" to Oppegard, a veteran Kentucky mine safety lawyer and investigator. "A spill implies something benign ("I spilled my milk"), and many folks won't read past the headline. It also implies that it was "just an accident" --that is, that it wasn't foreseeable and that gross negligence or criminal conduct didn't occur, which I certainly would not assume at this point. To the contrary, I assume that there was gross negligence in this case."