This week in history


Gary Spikberg, Guest Writer

  • On Mar. 24, 1989, the supertanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on the Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound Alaska.  The damage to the hull resulted in an oil spill of an estimated 11 million gallons of crude oil.  While far from the largest oil spill by volume, the Exxon Valdez happened to run aground in the middle of an ecosystem that was home to a number of different corals that were especially vulnerable to the effects of the crude oil. Those responsible for the disaster managed to escape the full breadth of potential consequences; the captain of the Exxon Valdez was only convicted of misdemeanor negligence, which was later overturned. Exxon itself only paid $25 million dollars in penalties when they had previously pledged one billion dollars over 10 years to aid the remediation costs. A pittance when compared to the long-term effects of the disaster on not only the environment but the coastal communities that depended on the health of the wildlife in that area.  
  • On Mar. 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory was set ablaze.  While the building only burned for roughly 18 minutes, when the smoke cleared 146 people lay dead.  Passers by looked on in horror as many of those dead had jumped from the windows of the factory that occupied the 8th through 10th floors of the Asch building in downtown Manhattan.  At the time regulations protecting workers were almost non-existent. This was made abundantly clear for particularly vulnerable labor classes such as the largely immigrant workforce in the textile industry at the time. This particular factory, in addition to the poor escape routes, suffered from an overcrowded production space and had no installed fire suppression system such as a sprinkler system. Not only this, but the particularly flammable nature of cotton textiles caused a fire hazard. The owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris largely escaped the consequences of manslaughter for their negligence to protect their workers, even with their dubious history of workplace fires.  Nonetheless, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire is seen by many as the major catalyst for the first wave of worker protection laws. This day in history serves as a poignant reminder that every safety regulation we have came about from a disaster that warranted it.
  • Mar. 28, 1979, was the day of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. The initial cause of the accident was a pressure valve failure that allowed radioactively contaminated cooling water to drain out of the reactor building. Emergency pumps initially compensated for the loss but were shut off by plant operators who misread the situation. As a result, the reactor neared a meltdown state, a subsequent buildup of hydrogen gas caused an explosion and a release of radioactive gas. To date, this was the worst nuclear accident to occur in the US nuclear power industry. Cleanup of the affected reactor would not be completed until 1990, with communities downwind of the plant experiencing increased incidences of thyroid cancer even 30 years after the accident. While the Three Mile Island accident was nowhere near as severe as later disasters such as the one at Chernobyl or the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, it nonetheless shaped the burgeoning antinuclear movement in the United States for decades to come