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Firefighters use flashlights on April 18, 2013, to search a destroyed apartment complex near a fertilizer plant that exploded in West, Texas. (AP) Firefighters use flashlights on April 18, 2013, to search a destroyed apartment complex near a fertilizer plant that exploded in West, Texas. (AP)

Firefighters use flashlights on April 18, 2013, to search a destroyed apartment complex near a fertilizer plant that exploded in West, Texas. (AP)

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson February 15, 2023

After a train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, and ignited a fire, authorities issued evacuations and implemented a controlled release of the chemicals.

The Feb. 3 derailment set off investigations and raised questions about how serious its impacts will be on local residents and the environment.

Although no one was injured or killed as a result of the derailment, experts say it’s too soon to know whether the disaster will produce fatalities, serious illnesses or widespread environmental damage.

As alarming as news about the accident in East Palestine is, a look back at history shows that it is not unprecedented. Over the past century, dozens of industrial accidents have killed thousands of Americans.

Here, we’ve collected some of the most serious examples in recent decades. Though the list is not comprehensive, the first section includes a selection of industrial incidents that killed and injured multiple people. The second section lists incidents that had a significant impact on the environment and in some cases, also included fatalities. We have separately provided a rundown of U.S. rail accidents.

Selected U.S. industrial accidents

1919: Great molasses flood, Boston. 22 dead, 150 injured. A storage tank collapsed, sending a wave of molasses 15 to 40 feet high through the city’s North End neighborhood, destroying several blocks and drowning pedestrians.

Heavy black smoke rises after fires raged in a Texas City, Texas, refinery and oil storage tank area following a ship explosion on April 17, 1947. (AP)
1947: Ship explosion, Texas City, Texas: 400 to 600 dead, 4,000 injured. The SS Grandcamp, carrying highly flammable ammonium nitrate fertilizer, exploded, setting off a chain of fires and a tidal wave. The explosion could be heard 150 miles away.
1965: Natural gas explosion, Natchitoches, Louisiana: 17 dead. A pipeline explosion created a 27-foot long, 10-foot-deep blast crater and incinerated nearly 14 acres.
1971: Thiokol chemical explosion, Woodbine, Georgia: 29 dead, 50 injured. An explosion at a military explosives factory leveled one building. The resulting fire burned three other buildings and scorched 200 acres of forest.
1978: Cooling tower collapse, Willow Island, West Virginia: 51 dead. The cooling tower was being built at a power station when falling concrete caused the scaffolding to collapse.
1984: Union Oil refinery explosion, Romeoville, Illinois: 17 dead. Vapors escaping from a hairline crack in a tank were ignited by a spark, launching the 34-ton container more than 3,400 feet and spewing flames throughout the refinery.
1988: Norco, Louisiana, Shell Oil refinery explosion: 7 dead. Corroded vapor lines exploded, releasing more than 150 million pounds of pollution into the air.

The site of a May 5, 1988 explosion at a space shuttle fuel plant in Henderson, Nevada. (AP)
1988: Pacific Engineering Company of Nevada (PEPCON) chemical explosion, Henderson, Nevada: 2 dead, 400 injured. Seven explosions at a facility that produced ammonium perchlorate registered as much as 3.5 on the Richter scale and left a crater that was 15 feet wide and 200 feet long.
1988: Fume incident at Bastian Plating Co., Auburn, Indiana: 5 dead. Workers cleaning a holding tank used a chemical that reacted with zinc cyanide residue, producing hydrogen cyanide fumes.
1989: Phillips Petroleum explosion, Pasadena, Texas: 23 dead, 130 injured. An ethylene leak at a plastics factory sparked a series of explosions, producing a fireball visible 15 miles away.
1990: Arco explosion, Channelview, Texas: 17 dead, 5 injured. The explosion took place at a petrochemical plant near the Houston Ship Channel that produced a gasoline additive.
1991: Angus Chemical explosion, Sterlington, Louisiana: 8 dead, 42 injured. A fire caused a series of explosions that destroyed a large section of the plant and hurled debris weighing up to 150 pounds almost a mile away.
1991: Imperial Food Products chicken plant fire, Hamlet, North Carolina: 25 dead, 40 injured. A fire broke out and spread due to grease and oils on the factory floor. The building’s sprinklers failed, and fleeing workers were blocked by locked doors, eventually succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning.
Black smoke billows from the roof of the exploded DeBruce Grain elevator near Haysville, Kansas, June 12, 1998. (AP
1998: Grain elevator explosion in Haysville, Kansas: 7 dead, 10 injured. The grain-dust explosion occurred in the world's largest grain elevator, with space to store all the wheat needed to produce enough bread to feed the entire United States for six weeks.
2003: West Pharmaceutical Services explosion, Kinston, North Carolina: 6 dead, dozens injured. A plant that produced rubber stoppers for medical use exploded when a haze of fine plastic powder ignited.
2005: BP refinery explosion, Texas City, Texas: 15 dead, 180 injured. Explosions occurred when a distillation tower experienced overpressurization, producing a geyser-like release.
2006: Falk Corporation explosion, Milwaukee: 3 dead, 46 injured. A gas leak ignited in a manufacturing and maintenance facility.
2006: Sago mine disaster, West Virginia: 12 dead. An explosion at a coal mine trapped workers 260 feet below ground.
2007: T2 Laboratories explosion, Jacksonville, Florida: 4 dead, 13 injured. An explosion occurred at a factory that produced a gasoline additive.
2008: Imperial sugar refinery explosion, Port Wentworth, Georgia: 14 dead, 36 injured. A spark ignited sugar dust, producing a series of explosions that destroyed several buildings.
2009: ConAgra Foods explosion Garner, North Carolina: 4 dead. A natural gas leak produced an explosion at a plant that made Slim Jim jerky, blowing a wall into the parking lot and destroying a portion of the roof. Some workers burned while others inhaled toxic fumes.
2010: Kleen Energy power plant explosion, Middletown, Connecticut: 6 dead. As workers were trying to clean debris from natural gas pipes, a spark ignited an explosion.
2010: Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, West Virginia: 29 dead. An explosion sent deadly flames through miles of underground tunnels.
2013: Fertilizer plant explosion, West, Texas: 15 dead, hundreds of injuries. An explosion at a fertilizer storage and distribution facility damaged or destroyed 150 buildings, including a middle school, an apartment building, and a nursing home. It left a 93-foot-wide crater.
2021: Foundation Food Group poultry plant gas leak, Gainesville, Georgia: 6 dead, 12 injured. A leak of nitrogen gas suffocated workers.
Selected U.S. environmental incidents
The main business district in Donora, Pa., is cloaked in smog on Oct. 30, 1948, with sunlight virtually obliterated by thick, low-hanging pollution. (AP)
1948: Smog in Donora, Pennsylvania: A yellow fog from zinc and steel production killed 20 residents.
1962: Centralia, Pennsylvania, mine fire. An underground fire in a coal seam continues to burn today, more than 60 years later.
1970s-1980s: Dioxin contamination from spraying in Times Beach, Missouri; Residents were evacuated and the Environmental Protection Agency bought out the town.
1970s: Love Canal, Niagara Falls, New York. Housing was built on a chemical dump site; residents were evacuated.
1979: Three Mile Island nuclear incident, Middletown, Pennsylvania. Radioactivity was released, but the levels were deemed not to be a serious health threat.
1989: Exxon Valdez oil spill. An oil tanker spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound, covering 1,300 miles of coastline and killing wildlife. Pockets of crude oil remain in some locations.
1990: Summitville mine release into the Alamosa River, Colorado. The release of cyanide, heavy metals and acid created a 17-mile "dead zone" for wildlife.
1991: Southern Pacific freight train derailment near Dunsmuir, California. A 19,000-gallon tank car carrying a pesticide fell off a bridge over the Sacramento River and spilled its load into the river, killing wildlife over a 40-mile stretch.
2000: Wild Turkey Distillery fire in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, led to a bourbon leak into the Kentucky River. 
2008: Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill, Roane County, Tennessee. A dike holding back coal ash ruptured, allowing 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash to spill onto 300 acres. 

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns on April 21, 2010. (AP)

2010: Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The largest marine oil spill in history, caused by an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil platform that killed 11 people and injured 17.

2013: Honolulu molasses spill. Approximately 233,000 gallons of sugarcane molasses spilled into Honolulu Harbor during ship loading. The discharge killed some 25,000 fish in the harbor and damaged coral reefs. 

2014: Elk River chemical spill, Charleston, West Virginia. Some 10,000 gallons of an industrial chemical spilled into the Elk River upstream from the Kanawha County municipal water intake in Charleston, West Virginia, which served nearly 300,000 people.

2015: Gold King Mine spill near Silverton, Colorado. An Environmental Protection Agency crew inadvertently released 3 million gallons of contaminated wastewater from the mine, which washed through Durango and eventually to Lake Powell, about 300 miles away. 

2015: Train derailment in Mount Carbon, West Virginia. A train carrying crude oil derailed.

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