The best books about environmental catastrophes

Who am I?

David DeKok became interested in environmental disasters in his native Michigan in 1974, when PBB, a fire-retardant chemical, was accidentally mixed with animal feed, entered the food chain, and then most people in the state, probably including himself. As a journalist in Pennsylvania, he wrote extensively about the Centralia mine fire and the aftermath of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, and is the author of four books. He tends to write about small towns and small-town people in crisis.


Fire Underground: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire

By David DeKok,

Book cover of Fire Underground: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire

A history of the underground fire in abandoned coal mines that destroyed Centralia, a small town in Pennsylvania, including how it started in 1962, why it is still burning today, and the existential struggle of the people of Centralia to force government to either deal with the fire beneath their feet or get them out of there. They won, but at the cost of their beloved town. Beginning in 1982, nearly a thousand residents were relocated to new homes at government expense. Their old homes were demolished, and little remains of Centralia today.

The books I picked & why

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We Almost Lost Detroit

By John G. Fuller,

Book cover of We Almost Lost Detroit

Why this book?

We Almost Lost Detroit was published in the mid-1970s  at a time of growing concern over nuclear power in America that would reach a boiling point with the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania in 1979. There was no love lost between the two sides. Utility executives were believed to be liars trying to save their investment in a costly, difficult technology. Nuclear critics were portrayed by the industry as deluded tree-huggers. It was a real debate with real consequences, and this book shows why. The cover of the Ballantine paperback edition shows the terrified face of a man inside a radiation protective suit.

We Almost Lost Detroit

By John G. Fuller,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked We Almost Lost Detroit as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A valuable contribution to the debate over nuclear power, this book documents the Fermi accident that so frightened the AEC and nuclear industry that they did not want the details and significance leaked to the public. At the time of the publication of this book, many critics of nuclear power were demanding to know all the pertinent information regarding the safety of nuclear reactors.


Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals

By Michael Harold Brown,

Book cover of Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals

Why this book?

Brown lays out some of the major crises that fueled modern environmentalism and in so doing helps the reader to understand the passions that drove the movement. I remember when Lois Gibbs, a leader of the Love Canal residents, came to Centralia to give a pep talk to residents there about fighting government inaction.

Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals

By Michael Harold Brown,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Laying Waste as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Recounts the dumping of toxic chemical wastes in the Love Canal area of Niagara Falls which led to an epidemic of grave medical problems and the permanent evacuation of nearby residents and documents other chemical-waste tragedies erupting throughout America


A Civil Action

By Jonathan Harr,

Book cover of A Civil Action

Why this book?

I recommended this book because it demonstrates how difficult it can be to obtain civil justice even in seemingly obvious cases of environmental harm.  Residents of Centralia, to hark back to that story, worked with a skilled (and pro bono) Washington law firm which, try as it did, could not find a likely road to win damages for them. While the book favors the cause of justice, Harr does not spare Schlichtman from exposure of his personal faults. A Civil Action is almost a primer on the litigation process, and is said to be taught in some law schools. The book, which could have been dry, is compelling reading, a model of narrative non-fiction. Haar makes it as much or more about the people involved as about the legal filings, and that is the key.

A Civil Action

By Jonathan Harr,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked A Civil Action as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The story of a lawyer's battle to win compensation from two of America's largest industrial giants. He fought on behalf of 21 families whose lives were wrecked by illness and death due to the alleged poisoning of their town well. This case became renowned in American legal history.


Meltdown: A Race Against Nuclear Disaster at Three Mile Island: A Reporter's Story

By Wilborn Hampton,

Book cover of Meltdown: A Race Against Nuclear Disaster at Three Mile Island: A Reporter's Story

Why this book?

While this is not a comprehensive history of the TMI accident and its aftermath—none exists––you can happily read this book and understand the seriousness of what happened. It is not encumbered with anti-nuclear ideology, like some of the books written immediately after the accident were. It has many photos, a glossary of nuclear terms, and an index. 

Meltdown: A Race Against Nuclear Disaster at Three Mile Island: A Reporter's Story

By Wilborn Hampton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Meltdown as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It was 5 a.m. at the nuclear power plant on an island in the middle of the Susquehanna River. Suddenly an alarm shrieked. Something was going wrong inside the plant. Within minutes human error and technical failure triggered the worst nuclear power accident in the United States and within hours, the eyes of the world were on Three Mile Island. Wilborn Hampton transports the readers to this pivotal moment in American history, telling the hour-by-hour story of covering the nuclear accident as a U.P.I. (United Press International) reporter. His fascinating account will compel readers to consider one of the most…


Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster

By Adam Higginbotham,

Book cover of Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster

Why this book?

The world continues to consider nuclear power, despite the devastation to the nuclear industry caused by the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Nuclear power can play a part in fighting climate change, but we need to be aware of the risks as well as the rewards. Beyond that, it is a well-researched and dramatic story about the trauma that ensues when human communities are beset by environmental disasters.

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster

By Adam Higginbotham,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Midnight in Chernobyl as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times Best Book of the Year
A Time Best Book of the Year
A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of the Year
2020 Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence Winner

From journalist Adam Higginbotham, the New York Times bestselling “account that reads almost like the script for a movie” (The Wall Street Journal)—a powerful investigation into Chernobyl and how propaganda, secrecy, and myth have obscured the true story of one of the history’s worst nuclear disasters.

Early in the morning of April 26, 1986, Reactor Number Four of the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station exploded, triggering one of the…


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