Sunday, November 18, 2007

Hawk's Nest

In a previous post about the Union Carbide Bhopal disaster I pointed out that were such corporations to achieve their dream of eliminating safety and environmental regulations that we might expect such things to happen here.

When I wrote that I was not aware that Union Carbide is already responsible for one of the worst industrial disasters in U.S. history, which not incidentally also doubles as one of the most evil acts in 20th century American history.

In the 1930's, Union Carbide was drilling a three mile tunnel to divert water for a hydroelectric plant near Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. The laborers for this task were mostly poor blacks who were considered expendable by the company. About 5,000 people were working in the tunnels. As many as half of them may have died as a result of working in the tunnel (conservative estimates of confirmed deaths runs from 400 to 700.)

The mountain they were digging through was almost purely silica. Silica had been identified 15 years earlier as the cause of an often fatal disease that slowly suffocated victims by destroying the ability of their lungs to absorb oxygen. The doctors working for Union Carbide had replaced their Hippocratic Oath with a promise to promote the bottom line interests of their employers.

Recounting this incident in Trust Us We're Experts, Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber note

At Hawk's Nest, Union Carbide's management and engineers were mindful of the dangers associated with silica dust, and they wore face masks or respirators for self-protection when they entered the tunnel for periodic inspections. The workers themselves, who spent 8 to 10 hours a day breathing the dust, were not told about the hazard, nor were they given face masks. Wetting the job site would have reduced the amount of dust in the air, but this was not done either. "The company doctors were not allowed to tell the men what their trouble was," one of the doctors would testify later. If a worker complained of difficulty breathing, he would be told that his condition was pneumonia or "tunnelitus." For treatment, the doctors prescribed what came to be called "little black devils" - worthless pills made from sugar and baking soda.
The authors continue

In moderately dusty conditions, workers would expect to contract silicosis after 20 or 30 years. For jobs such as sandblasting, accelerated silicosis might strike in 10 years. At Hawk's Nest, conditions were so bad that workers were dying from acute silicosis within a single year.
The men were forced to live in a company house until they were to sick to work anymore and then were evicted. An undertaker working for Union Carbide ending up burying 169 men in a mass grave, say Rampton and Stauber.

During a 1935 Congressional investigation into the scandal, a Union Carbide contractor testified that, "I knew I was going to kill those niggers, but I didn't know it was going to be this soon."

A week after the hearings, industry gathered at the Mellon Institute and formed the Air Hygiene Foundation to wage a p.r. campaign for industry. Here's a quote from AHF rep Alfred Hirth to give you an idea of the level of moral integrity these miserable souless cretins had: "Silicotics are rare compared with men driven from their jobs by shyster lawyers." And AHF lawyer:

Theodore C. Waters, accused doctors of fabricating claims of silicosis. "In many instances," he stated, "employees have been advised by physicians, untrained and inexperienced in the diagnosis and effect of silicosis, that they have the disease and thereby have sustained liability. Acting on this advice, the employee, now concerned about his condition, leaves his employment, even though that trade may be the only one in which he is able to earn a living."
Hundreds, if not a few thousand, men who worked at Hawk's Nest beg to differ. It's hard to earn a living when you're dead.

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