I’d be inclined to nominate the New Madrid Earthquake of 1812, but I think the inevitable winner would have to be the 19th century California Hydraulic Mining for gold that moved millions of tons of earth, silted up entire river systems, washed away entire mountains, and rearranged the topography of a gigantic area of land permanently.
In the southern end of Californiaâ€™s San Joaquin Valley, an oil rush was on in the early decades of the 20th century. On March 14, 1910, a well halfway between the towns of Taft and Maricopa, in Kern County, blew out with a mighty roar.
It continued spewing huge quantities of oil for 18 months. The version of events accepted by the State of California puts the flow rate near 100,000 barrels a day at times. â€œItâ€™s the granddaddy of all gushers,â€ said Pete Gianopulos, an amateur historian in the area.
The ultimate volume spilled was calculated at 9 million barrels, or 378 million gallons. According to the highest government estimates, the Deepwater Horizon spill is not yet half that size.
The Lakeview oil was penned in immense pools by sandbags and earthen berms, and nearly half was recovered and refined by the Union Oil Company. The rest soaked into the ground or evaporated. Today, little evidence of the spill remains, and outside Kern County, it has been largely forgotten. That is surely because the area is desert scrubland, and few people were inconvenienced by the spill.
That sets it apart from the Deepwater Horizon leak. The environmental effects of the gulf spill remain largely unknown. But the number of lives disrupted is certainly in the thousands, if not the tens of thousands; the paychecks lost in industries like fishing add up to millions; and the ultimate cost will be counted in billions.
Even with all that pain, can it yet be called the nationâ€™s worst environmental disaster?
â€œMy take,â€ said William W. Savage Jr., a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, â€œis that weâ€™re not going to be able to tell until itâ€™s over.â€