3 Industrial Groundwater Contamination Disasters

Groundwater is something we take for granted and rarely think about. However, groundwater plays a fundamental role in the health of our ecosystems and we rely on the fresh water it provides to drink, bathe in, and use in agriculture. Unfortunately, groundwater is vulnerable to contamination from industrial activities and when this occurs, the results can be devastating. This week, we look at three severe instances of industrial groundwater contamination, and the horrific consequences.


Bhopal gas tragedy

In 1984, the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant was responsible for a gas leak that is often referred to as the world’s worst industrial disaster. The factory closed in 1986 but two plants and numerous storage areas remained, leaking a number of toxic chemicals including heavy metals and pesticides into the soil and groundwater. 25 years later, the drinking water supply for 15 communities located near the plant remains contaminated and is actually worsening as the chemicals leach through the soil into the aquifer. People from these communities have been found to have high rates of birth defects, mental illness, neurological damage, and rising cancer rates. A Swiss lab tested the water in 2009 and found it contained chloroform concentrations 3.5 times higher than the World Health Organisation guidelines allow and carbon tetrachloride concentrations 2,400 times higher.


Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune

Between 1957 and 1987, Marines and their families stationed at Camp Lejeune bathed and drank in highly contaminated water. The camp dumped oil, industrial wastewater, and toxic chemicals into storm drains and near base wells. As a result, the drinking water was contaminated with over 70 different chemicals in concentrations between 240 and 3400 times higher than EPA regulations. Over the 30 year period when the dumping occurred an estimated 500,000 people were exposed to the contaminated water and reported health issues including several types of cancer, leukaemia, miscarriages and birth defects. Remediation efforts continue to this day.

Mutare, Zimbabwe

In 2012, diamond mining activities caused metal poisoning in the Save, Odzi and Singwizi rivers, all of which are used as a drinking water source by communities in the Marange District of Zimbabwe. Carcinogenic elements used in metal extraction including chromium, nickel, iron, and fluoride as well as high levels of bacteria were all found to be present in the water. In Nenhohwe village, 100 km south of Mutare, residents who rely on the Odzi river as a water source have reported children developing severe skin rashes and livestock losses. However, Zimbabwe’s Environmental Management Agency denies there is any chemical pollution present.


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