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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Hawk's Nest Tunnel (p. 353)

From chapter "Production"

Bhopal was not the first place Union Carbide caused death on a massive scale. The company is also responsible for the worst industrial disaster in the United States: the hundreds of deaths associated with the digging of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel in West Virginia in the 1930s.

Of the approximately 1,213 Union Carbide employees who worked at least two months digging the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel, 764 (63 percent) died within seven years of silicosis.

Silicosis is considered the oldest occupational disease. Herodotus mentioned it after observing the premature deaths of miners. Agricola in the sixteenth century and Ramazzini in the eighteenth made the connection between certain types of dust and the onset of the disease. Seventeenth-century Spaniards noted that Indians forced to work in Peruvian mines died of silicosis within six to eighteen months.

By the late nineteenth century, the causal agent of silicosis had become even more clear. When tiny particles of silica—released when granite or sandstone are pulverized—are inhaled and absorbed deep in the lungs, the cells begin to digest themselves. The lungs become scarred, lose their capacity to absorb oxygen, and become susceptible to infections such as pneumonia or tuberculosis. By 1911, twenty years before work commenced on the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel, the connection between airborne silica and death by silicosis had been established well enough to cause even South Africa, with its cavalier attitude toward the deaths of black miners, to force its gold mines to use water to suppress dust when drilling. This means that while few South African miners who worked less than five years contracted silicosis, and while about 10 percent of those who worked ten years or more became ill, workers in the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel had a greater than 60 percent death rate for less than two years of exposure. The point is that, to serve production, Union Carbide knowingly created conditions leading to the deaths of more than seven hundred and fifty human beings.

Here’s how it happened.

In 1927 the Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation created the wholly-owned subsidiary New Kanawha Power Company. Later that year the subsidiary filed plans with the federal government to build a tunnel through the Hawk’s Nest promontory in West Virginia, and to divert the flow of the New River through that tunnel. The entire river, large enough to be navigable one hundred and sixty-six miles above the Hawk’s Nest site, would be diverted to generate electricity solely for the use of Union Carbide’s metals plant at Boncar (now Alloy), West Virginia. The federal government did not oppose the plan. The next year, Union Carbide filed plans with the West Virginia State Public Service Commission. It was quickly approved. Martin Cherniak, author of The Hawk’s Nest Incident: America’s Worst Industrial Disaster, notes how remarkable it is “that a private corporation could buy parts of a major river system and effectively dewater more than five miles of riverbed without encountering significant objection from either state or federal government.”

Construction on the three-mile tunnel began in 1930. Advancing at the breakneck pace of up to three hundred feet per week, the tunnel was completed by the end of 1931. Since most of the workers were not local, having been attracted from all over the southern United States by the possibility of employment, Union Carbide’s subcontractor, Rinehart and Dennis, built company camps. These camps were strictly segregated by race. Although the shanties in each camp were approximately the same size—one hundred to one hundred and fifty square feet divided into two rooms—those occupied by whites were wired for electricity and housed four men; those occupied by blacks (the majority of the work force) were not wired and housed as many as twelve. No matter the occupancy, room and board for the shacks ran approximately six dollars a week, about half a laborer’s salary.

Rinehart and Dennis routinely used violence against the black (though not the white) workers. A worker later recalled: “If a colored man was sick and really couldn’t go to work in the morning, he had to hide out before the shack rouster came around. That fellow had two pistols and a blackjack to force men to go to work.” The “shack rouster,” employed by Rinehart and Dennis, had been deputized by the Fayette County sheriff. At least one of the white foremen routinely carried a baseball bat to assist him in overseeing the black workers, and a white engineer testified to the use of violence to force blacks to do the most dangerous work: “I have heard quite a few times that they used pick handles or a drillstead and knocked them in the head with it.”

Typically, each shift of miners drilled three hundred and twenty holes into which they packed six to eight hundred pounds of dynamite. For the hour it took to detonate the charges, the men waited three to four hundred feet up the tunnel, after which they were forced—often at gunpoint and even before the dust had settled—to return to clear the debris. (They resisted returning because of the danger presented by silica dust.) Despite the tunnel being dug through rock, composed of 90 percent or more of silica (some estimates run to higher than 99 percent), and despite the well-understood relationship between exposure to airborne silica and death by silicosis, neither Union Carbide, New Kanawha Power Company, nor Rinehart and Dennis ever measured dust levels in the tunnel. Worse, most of the drilling was “dry,” that is, water was not used to suppress dust. Nor was water (or even ventilation) used to suppress dust from explosions. This led to dust in the tunnel “so thick that one could not identify anybody he met when the man was only a few feet away from him.” At shift’s end, dust concealed the complexion of the miners’ faces as well as the color of their clothes, and dust marked their tracks for hundreds of feet as they returned to their camps.

Union Carbide responded to the rock’s high silica content by requiring all New Kanawha employees, who were mainly engineers overseeing the project for Union Carbide, to wear respirators and receive warnings about the dangers of silica dust; the common laborers, on the other hand, received neither respirators nor warnings. After reports of the deaths of black workers reached Robert Lambie, director of the West Virginia Department of Mines, Lambie inspected the tunnel and wrote a letter to New Kanawha, warning of the hazards of silicosis and ordering that respirators be given to the laborers. His orders were ignored, at least in part because of the sentiment expressed by one company official: “I wouldn’t give $2.50 for all the niggers on the job.”

A 1931 article in the local paper, the Fayette Tribune, reveals another response by Union Carbide to the elevated silica content: “Like a tale from the story of Aladdin’s lamp, boring of the tunnel has enriched the Union Carbide company with untold wealth. In the process of removing the rock, the workers came across a vast deposit of silica sandstone which assays 99.44 percent pure. … Discovery of this sandstone in the lower end of the tunnel, brought about a big change in the operations, for the excavations were immediately extended in size and the tunnel considerably enlarged.” Union Carbide expanded the diameter of the tunnel from thirty-one to as many as forty-six feet and delivered three hundred thousand tons of silica ore to the site of its Boncar metals plant.

It was not long before workers began dying. To prevent public alarm or resentment against associated companies, Rinehart and Dennis prohibited laborers from speaking to either the press or law officials (those who spoke out would get fired), and Union Carbide more firmly exerted its formidable influence over editorial policies of local newspapers.

The death toll grew too high to ignore, and, nearly a year after work began on the tunnel, the Fayette Journalfinally noted “the great deal of comments about town regarding the unusually large number of deaths among colored laborers at tunnel works of the New Kanawha Power Company. The deaths total about 37 in the past two weeks.” Cherniak comments on the paper’s reluctance to forthrightly confront the disaster at Hawk’s Nest: “A reader might wonder what height a local death toll must reach to merit mention in the newspapers of a rural town.”

The physicians hired by Union Carbide and its associates were grossly inadequate for this wave of illness and death: Their prescription for what they called “tunnelitis” was that miners swallow “little black devils”: tablets of baking soda coated with sugar. As the futility of this prescription became clear, Rinehart and Dennis surreptitiously, and at nearly twice the going rate, hired an undertaker from a neighboring county to quickly dispose of the bodies of workers who died on the job. The undertaker buried the bodies on his farm.

The company had no trouble replacing workers who died or fell ill. Material poverty and lack of other employment opportunities drove migrant workers to live in rotting shacks or fields, waiting for the rare chance at a job. Rinehart and Dennis were later to argue that since the laborers chose to work in the tunnel, presumably knowing those they replaced had fallen ill or died, no one but the workers themselves were culpable for the deaths. The judge in the first lawsuit against the companies made this claim as well. But were the workers in any meaningful sense making a choice? There is an important difference between making a choice and selecting an option from among artificially limited alternatives. In order for someone to make a choice, that person must also be free to not choose. In the 1982 film, Sophie’s Choice, for example, on entry to a Nazi death camp the title character is forced to select one child to live, and one to go immediately to the gas chamber. If she fails to select, they will both die. Using this definition, Sophie was not making a choice but selecting among bad alternatives. The same is true for workers hired by Union Carbide. Given the prevailing social conditions, laborers could select the option of working at this job, they could select the option of starving while they searched for another job in a depressed market, or they could select the option of working at no job and starving altogether. They did not have the freedom to not choose, that is, to not enter the wage economy, either by being self-sufficient or by relying upon an alternative community. As I hope was shown in the discussion of DeBeers and apartheid, and throughout this book, a primary function of government within our culture has been to disallow people the choice of remaining free of the “free-market” wage economy. Consider the taxes that were imposed by the South African government as a “gentle stimulus” to force workers into the mines, and consider the seventy million buffalo slaughtered as part of U.S. policy to bring Plains Indians to terms; these are only two of the many means by which people have been forced into the wage economy. Had it been possible, in a realistic sense, for the workers at the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel to exit the wage economy and yet remain alive, they would have been making a choice. As it was, they were selecting one of many bad options. The systematic and ubiquitous replacement of choice with selection among inferior alternatives is a hallmark of our economics, and is one of the many ways people are forced to subsidize the business interests of those who govern.

In any case, once the new people were hired, room had to be made for them in the already crowded camps of the black laborers. One of the workers described how this was done: “When it got so a worker couldn’t make it at all, when he got sick and simply couldn’t go longer, the sheriff would come around and run him off the place, off the works. I have seen the sheriff and his men run the workers off their places when they were sick and weak, so weak that they could hardly walk. Some of them would have to stand up at the sides of trees to hold themselves up. And the sheriff and his men could plainly see that the men were sick and unable to go, yet they kept making them keep on the move. . . . Many of the men died in the tunnel camps; they died in hospitals, under rocks, and every place else. … I can go right now and point to many graves only two blocks from where I live there now.”

Soon after the tunnel’s completion, in December 1931, workers and relatives of deceased workers began filing lawsuits against Rinehart and Dennis and/or Union Carbide’s subsidiary, the New Kanawha Power Company.

At the first of these trials, some of the New Kanawha staff and many laborers testified to the high dust levels and to the use of dry drilling. In addition, five physicians also spoke in favor of the plaintiff, Raymond Johnson, including one who stated that 95 percent of the one hundred and seventy-five workers he had examined were suffering from acute silicosis. Others, however, testified that visibility in the tunnel had been excellent, better even than the air in the courtroom. A foreman for Rinehart and Dennis, who died, two years later, of silicosis, swore that all drilling had been wet. Robert Lambie, the director of the West Virginia Department of Mines, who earlier had ordered respirators for everyone in the tunnel, now testified on behalf of the companies. He stated visibility was seven hundred feet and that all drilling was wet. His previous letters and reports had been based, he said, on erroneous information received from his staff. Six days after his testimony, Lambie began a new business, that of private consultant to the largest industrial and mining corporations in the state. Near the end of the trial, one witness changed his testimony: The companies had threatened and bribed him to swear the air in the tunnel had been clean, he said, but his conscience now made him speak out. Nonetheless, the trial ended with a hung jury, and the judge dismissed the case. The judge later cited a jury member who had been driven to and from the court by Rinehart and Dennis employees. Referring to the corporations’ purchase of witnesses and intimidation of jurors, a state investigator later said, “I think the payment of that money, the suspicious tampering with the jury system, was about the most damnable outrage that had been perpetrated in any state up to that time.” Raymond Johnson, the plaintiff, hired new attorneys to retry his suit, but died before the retrial.

By the spring of 1933, one hundred and fifty-seven lawsuits, seeking four million dollars, had been filed against the companies. In June, however, attorneys for both sides announced the cases were being settled for $130,000, half of which would go to the laborers’ attorneys.

The attorneys ostensibly representing the workers secretly received an additional $20,000 in exchange for promising not to engage in further legal action and for handing their records over to the companies.

When knowledge of jury tampering and the attorneys’ deal became public, an additional 202 victims filed suit. The court barred 142 of these as having been filed too late for consideration, and the West Virginia House of Delegates disallowed the rest by legislatively establishing impossible terms for the compensation of victims of silicosis. The House of Delegates retroactively placed a one-year statute of limitations on filing suits, despite (or, rather, because of) the potentially long latency period of silicosis, and despite (or, once again, because of) work having ceased on the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel twenty-nine months earlier, and they also required victims to have been exposed to silica for a minimum of two years before they would be eligible for compensation. The latter requirement was added because work on the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel lasted only eighteen months. After taking a test case to the Supreme Court and losing, the victims’ attorneys settled out of court for $70,000.

As at Bhopal (and as these things nearly always go) Union Carbide interpreted the final settlement as a grand victory. The total compensation accruing to the 538 laborers—human beings— who filed suit was less than $130,000. Cherniak remarks that “the convergent acts or decisions of powerful corporate entities, state officials, and the courts had determined that less than four hundred dollars was the average worth of a tunnel worker’s health or life.”

The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel was a successful investment for Union Carbide. It began to produce power for the company’s Alloy plant in 1937, and to this day continues to generate electricity. In economic terms, the tunnel has paid for itself many times over—the costs of construction were repaid in less than a decade, only a few years after the 764th victim died of silicosis. As for the victims, well, the contractor put it best, when he said at later congressional hearings, “I knew I was going to kill these niggers, but I didn’t know it was going to be this soon.”