50 Years Ago: Aberfan

The Aberfan Tribunal promised that there would be no whitewashing. They produced a report full of memorable phrases (“bungling ineptitude”; “subterfuge and arrogance by the National Coal Board”; “eight years of folly and neglect”) and they laid the blame for the disaster on the National Coal Board, its headquarters, its divisional board, and four of its officials.

In this, the tribunal followed the accepted pattern of all enquiries into disasters. Somewhere, somebody—a railway signalman, an airline pilot, a ship’s captain—makes a mistake or breaks a rule. It is all too easy, afterwards, to point the finger.

Very few people care to wonder about the context in which the ‘mistakes’ are made, the rules ‘broken’.

Only in passing, for example, did the Aberfan tribunal deal with the basic cause of the disaster, which was the very existence of the slag heaps, up on the mountain above the doomed village. Tipping waste from coal mines is, after all, the simplest and cheapest way of disposing of it. In South Wales, the valleys cannot be used for the tips because that is where the pit heads and the houses must be built. So that the stuff is dumped onto the mountains, where it is a continual eyesore and menace.

Of course they could stop tipping but, as the tribunal said on this very point “. . . the reflection that to stop tipping could bring about the closure of the Merthyr Vale Colliery may well have led to the quick suppression of those doubts . . .”

Of course they could deposit the stuff underground but this, said the tribunal, was neither “technically feasible now nor economically practicable” (The Times estimated the cost of removing the tip complex alone at £3 million).

Thus the tribunal accepted the economic confine within which capitalism’s industry operates. It accepted that anything which is not economically practicable must be rejected, it accepted that people must live in the constant need to work for their living. It accepted that, although a certain amount must be done to mitigate the hardships of this social set-up, in the end we must make the best of it.

The economic practicabilities of capitalism have a lot to answer for, in coal mining more than in most other industries. Aberfan was only the latest, if one of the most unusual, of the disasters caused by the ‘economic’ production of coal.

(Socialist Standard, September 1967)

Leave a Reply