The 5 Biggest Backfires in the History of Disaster Relief

#2. Saving an Endangered Trout (With Poison)

The thing that's most interesting about fishers/hunters/outdoorsy sportsman types is how much they have in common with die-hard environmentalists, even though they rarely vote the same way. Both groups are really into keeping the outdoors as pristine as possible, and both freak out when a species disappears. Which is exactly what happened when the westslope cutthroat trout vanished from Cherry Creek, Montana.

Pictured: The cutthroat trout. All fish look the same anyway, especially when battered.

The westslope cutthroat trout, in addition to having the most badass fish name ever, is the state fish of Montana and the only fish indigenous to the area. Unfortunately, overfishing, logging and general habitat destruction have wiped out many of the trout, and since the slutty westslope cutthroat likes to do it with other species of trout, they are hybridizing themselves out of existence.

The solution seemed simple: Why not eliminate the usurping fish and restock the waters with their rightful inhabitants? What could go wrong?

Assuming you've been paying attention, the answer is "everything."

How They Made It Worse:

Poison. Poison was how they made it worse.

Beginning in 2004, Montana Fish and Wildlife authorities began dosing a 60-mile stretch of Cherry Creek with a fish poison called rotenone to kill off the hybrids and non-native brook trout that destroyed their beloved westslope cutthroat. The idea was controversial from the get-go, especially since it was mostly funded by Ted Turner, who happened to own property around the creek and happened to be a fishing enthusiast, and happens to be hated by everyone who lives near his property.

He was also married to Jane Fonda. These facts are unrelated.

Here was how the plan was supposed to work: Part 1 -- Authorities would construct a barrier at the mouth of the stream so no more non-natives could live in Westslopia. Part 2 -- Authorities would poison the crap out of the foreigners who had the audacity to think they could start a new life in a place where they were clearly not wanted. Part 3 -- Authorities would restock Cherry Creek with genetically pure westslope cutthroat trout once the hybrids and uninvited were removed.

Via Wikimedia Commons

The brook trout were also told to sit in designated places on the bus and stop complaining.

Shockingly, things haven't exactly gone according to plan. In 2010, six years after the pisciciding of Cherry Creek began, something went terribly wrong. Namely, that something was rotenone, and it went wrong by traveling 13 miles past its intended target and killing 100 percent of the fish it came in contact with.

After a lengthy investigation into what happened, the Fish and Wildlife fellas just kind of shrugged their shoulders and said they'd probably never know what went wrong. Which is stunning, considering A) one of the possibilities was that the poison entered the groundwater before showing up 13 miles away, and B) the accident didn't deter future dosing in any way at all, because three more rotenone-dosing projects are in the works.
And then we'll just start throwing dynamite into the water, because fish are too fat and lazy nowadays.

#1. Fighting Water Contamination With Orange Juice

As any water treatment worker will tell you, water treatmenting is hard work. Sometimes the pipes all look alike; sometimes you've got to read or ask for help to know which is which. And sometimes you just have to take a wild guess at which pipe to pour your toxic chemicals into. Which is exactly what happened on July 6, 1988, in the British town of Camelford, when a substitute tanker driver showed up at the Lowermoor Water Treatment Works to deliver some aluminum sulphate.

His instructions were simple: "once inside the gate, the aluminum sulphate tank is on the left." What wasn't so simple was which tank on the left. Because there were several, and his key fit all of them. Also not so simple: the act of picking up a phone and double-checking, apparently, because instead of making sure he had the right tank, he decided to just dump 20 tons of aluminum sulphate into what we later learned was the town's goddamned drinking water.

Well, he couldn't just leave it lying around. It's toxic, you know.

So that was problem No. 1, which was a pretty hefty problem, considering that the sulphate turned acidic within hours of the mistake. One man reported that milk in his coffee curdled once it hit the acid in the water. Others complained of hair turning green and toenails falling out. And this was just in the days after the contamination.

Problems No. 2 through infinity got rolling in the aftermath.

How They Made It Worse:

After getting 900 complaints about the water's taste, the water company advised residents to cover up the water's acidity by diluting it with orange juice. What they didn't tell anyone was that the orange juice was actually making the acid worse. What they also didn't tell anyone was that they had confirmed exactly what was wrong with the water by July 12, when the original driver was summoned back to the treatment center. Yet they waited 10 whole days before putting a teeny-tiny notice in the sports section of the paper to let residents know what was up. So let's recap:

July 6 -- Driver pollutes the water.

July 12 -- After a week of calls and complaints, treatment center confirms poisoning.

July 22 -- The chairman of the water authority lets the public in on the little goof-up, via the sports section of the paper.

"So the score is 96 for 6 at the second over and whoops we've poisoned you our bad."

By now the acid running through the pipes of the city had stripped them of zinc and lead, so residents were literally bathing in a poison cocktail. So the next big piece of advice was to simply boil the water, hopefully so the metals would get burned and leave town in a huff. Unfortunately, toxic chemicals are not the same thing as bacteria, and boiling the water actually made them even more concentrated.

And even though the authorities were flushing out the pipes, it wasn't doing much good because the main tank hadn't been cleaned in three years. That's three years -- when they were supposed to clean it six times a month.

"That green stuff? It's, um ... herbs. Health herbs."

Needless to say, after a poisoning of this level the drinkers of poison water in Camelford don't get a happy ending. Some have died of cancer, others of a way-early onset of Alzheimer's and dementia. The residents who didn't straight-up die still report loss of brain function, premature aging and decreased cognitive abilities. One victim had to get a bone biopsy, and the doctor found a ring of aluminum in his bones, like the rings of a tree.

Like Wolverine, but your only power is to wrap sandwiches efficiently.

So you'd think Camelford's residents would end up with a billion-dollar settlement out of this disaster, right? Try 500,000 pounds total, among about 650 claims, with the highest claim hitting 10,000 pounds, or a little over $16,000. The judge in the settlement said they were "extraordinarily well advised to accept the offer," because he didn't think they'd get anything if they pursued more. So they didn't.

We hope you learned your lesson, Lowermoor Water Treatment Works.

"Let's all raise a glass to criminal negligence and -- oh, no ... wait."

Centerfuge has his own web-comic at

See how we just keep tripping over our dicks in 6 Natural Disasters That Were Caused by Human Stupidity and 6 Man-Made Natural Disasters Just Waiting to Happen.

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