When we kicked off One Thing Wednesday yesterday, we talked about the need to be aware of likely disasters that can affect your home, school, or workplace. A lot of us think mainly of natural disasters, but failures of our own technology, industry, and infrastructure can be just as devastating. For example, hazardous materials (HAZMAT) spills can affect hundreds or even thousands of people. In a spill affecting a large area, cleanup can be an extensive – and expensive – process lasting weeks or months.
On this day in 1919, Boston’s North End neighborhood suffered one of the more unusual HAZMAT incidents of which we’re aware. At an ethanol production plant, a large storage vat burst, releasing 2.3 million gallons of… molasses.
The sugary flood poured through the streets at speeds in excess of 30 miles per hour, golden-brown waves cresting 25 feet high. The final casualty count reached 21 people and an undocumented number of horses. Cleanup lasted weeks, with Bostonians tracking the sticky-sweet contamination throughout the city. The photo at right shows part of the aftermath.
In the flood’s wake, the six-year court case (arising from over 100 separate lawsuits combined into a single class-action suit) was a milestone in corporate liability law. The Boston government adopted legislation requiring engineers to file their plans with the city before receiving a building permit and tightened the certification requirements for engineers. At the time, these were groundbreaking regulatory decisions, and their nationwide spread helped lay the groundwork for some of the industrial safety codes that we take for granted today.
As usual, Wikipedia has a pretty good outline of this event. Also check out The Boston Globe‘s recent article, which includes the results of some recent failure analysis, and the Globe‘s photo gallery. In addition, this older blog post at The Daily Kos has a good bit of additional information on the disaster and its legal, legislative, and social outcomes. (These are all outside links and may contain editorial commentary. We provide them solely as supplementary reading.)