With all the concern about the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, I thought it would be helpful to put the corporate citizenship of BP, Transocean, and Halliburton into perspective. This isn’t the first disaster with corporate sponsorship, after all.

For example . . .

1911: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory – The headline on the New York Times story [pdf] pretty much said it all:

141 MEN AND GIRLS DIE IN WAIST FACTORY FIRE; TRAPPED HIGH UP IN WASHINGTON PLACE BUILDING; STREET STREWN WITH BODIES; PILES OF DEAD INSIDE; The Flames Spread with Deadly Rapidity Through Flimsy Material Used in the Factory.

1971 Ford Pinto – A nice regular car, well-positioned against the VW except for its odd tendency to burst into flames when subjected to a rear end collision. As Mother Jones noted,

By conservative estimates Pinto crashes have caused 500 burn deaths to people who would not have been seriously injured if the car had not burst into flames. The figure could be as high as 900. Burning Pintos have become such an embarrassment to Ford that its advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson, dropped a line from the end of a radio spot that read “Pinto leaves you with that warm feeling.”

Oops. But don’t worry. According to cost-benefit analysis, Ford accountants thought that it would be cheaper to pay off litigation for these events than to, you know, actually FIX the problem.

Love Canal – It started as a simple landfill, then had 21,000 tons of toxic chemical waste added to it, and then the land was developed as a “solid, working class community.” But folks soon noticed problems:

Corroding waste-disposal drums could be seen breaking up through the grounds of backyards. Trees and gardens were turning black and dying. One entire swimming pool had been had been popped up from its foundation, afloat now on a small sea of chemicals. Puddles of noxious substances were pointed out to me by the residents. Some of these puddles were in their yards, some were in their basements, others yet were on the school grounds. Everywhere the air had a faint, choking smell. Children returned from play with burns on their hands and faces.

And then there were the birth defects. The New York State Health Department is continuing an investigation into a disturbingly high rate of miscarriages, along with five birth-defect cases detected thus far in the area.

2008: Goldman, Lehman, AIG, and the MOTUs managed to almost crash the US economy, then convince the government to bail (most of) them out. It was the season of  “the sh*tty deal,” as Goldman’s own traders noted. Thirteen bankers lay at the heart of things, and we’re still trying to dig out way out.

1984: Bhopal — Widely seen as the largest industrial accident to date, in which poisonous gases from a Union Carbide factory flowed through the Indian city of Bhopal, killing thousands immediately and more in the weeks and months that followed.

1979: Three Mile Island — Shortly after the movie The China Syndrome was released, Metropolitan Edison had a little problem at their nuclear reactor outside Harrisburg PA. It didn’t completely melt down, but came damned close. It was just a partial core meltdown, you see . . . don’t you feel better?

1986: Chernobyl — What Three Mile Island tried to do, Chernobyl accomplished. Quite simply, it is the worst nuclear accident on record. From the IAEA [pdf]:

On 26 April 1986, the most serious accident in the history of the nuclear industry occurred at Unit 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the former Ukrainian Republic of the Soviet Union. The explosions that ruptured the Chernobyl reactor vessel and the consequent fire that continued for 10 days or so resulted in large amounts of radioactive materials being released into the environment.

2000: Enron — Once upon a time, there was a little energy company that decided to transform itself into a speculative financial scheme. As Enron played its games with the energy markets in the west, they forced the state of California to suffer rolling brownouts, as the ISO tried to keep the electrical grid from collapsing. Enron’s traders schemed to shut down electricity production just as it was needed, thus driving prices higher, and the conversations between traders were caught on tape:

“They’re f——g taking all the money back from you guys?” complains an Enron employee on the tapes. “All the money you guys stole from those poor grandmothers in California?”

“Yeah, grandma Millie, man”

“Yeah, now she wants her f——g money back for all the power you’ve charged right up, jammed right up her a—— for f——g $250 a megawatt hour.”

Scarecrow described the scheme last July, noting that the health industry seemed poised to follow Enron’s lead. Lovely.

2010: Upper Big Branch Coal Mine — Accidents from time to time are simply the cost of doing business, dontcha know. Never mind those pesky safety regulations — they’re as silly as global warming.

1989: Exxon Valdez oil spill — Riki Ott came to the FDL Book Salon to chat about her book Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, but folk singer John McCutcheon captured the story quite simply:

Now, friends, I know you read about it in the papers
Or perhaps you saw the pictures on TV
How the tanker cracked and the sea turned black
But it’s time for some compassion, don’t you see
Hell, the shipping lane was only 10 miles wide
You fishermen, you ought to understand
And when the captain asked for “one on the rocks”
Well, the third mate followed his command

And we’ll change the name to “The Black Sea”
We’ll make it all a tourist spot
And when we’re done we’ll give it back to the people of Alaska
Just to show what man hath wrought
And we’ll pass along the cost to the ones who’ve lost
‘Cause you know it’s the American Way
Erect a neon sign for the rest of time:
“Brought to you by Exxon-USA”

2008: KBR electrocutions of US troops — In the midst of the Iraq war, Halliburton subsidiary KBR received a contract to do various electrical projects on US military facilities in Iraq and elsewhere around the Gulf.  Sadly, they projects had a habit of electrocuting US military personnel while they were in the showers. But hey — we got a really good deal on the contract work, right?

Enough.

With all the oil spilling out into the Gulf of Mexico, I’ve been trying to find a parallel for what we’re seeing. If you’ve got a favorite from the list above — or from some other event — toss your thoughts into the comments.

One last thought: these things don’t end overnight. The International Chernobyl Children’s Project, for instance, is *still* trying to deal with the aftereffects of that disaster, and God only knows what it will take to help the Gulf Coast come to terms with what BP, Halliburton, and Transocean have visited upon them.

photo: Nuclear Blast 1945 from thw05 (flickr)

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