Tuesday, October 24, 2006

"Buried alive by the NCB"

Forty years after disaster at Aberfan

At 9.15 am on Friday, October 21, 1966 a waste tip slid down a mountainside into the mining village of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. Down below it was foggy in the valley, and people heard the rumble before they could see what was happening. The black avalanche destroyed a farm cottage in its path, killing all the occupants. It continued down to Pantglas Junior School, where the children had just returned to their classes after singing All Things Bright and Beautiful at their assembly.

Gaynor Minett, an eight-year-old at the school, remembered four years later:
"It was a tremendous rumbling sound and all the school went dead. You could hear a pin drop. Everyone just froze in their seats. I just managed to get up and I reached the end of my desk when the sound got louder and nearer, until I could see the black out of the window. I can't remember any more but I woke up to find that a horrible nightmare had just begun in front of my eyes."

Men working above the tip had tried to run and give warning. They had no phone, apparently because the cables had previously been stolen. In any case even a 'phone warning would not have ennabled anyone to move in time, it all happened so quickly. The slide engulfed the school and about 20 houses in the village before coming to rest. Altogether 144 people died in the Aberfan disaster: 116 of them were school children. About half of the children at Pantglas Junior School, and five of their teachers, were killed.

"Buried alive by the NCB!" was one father's bitter verdict, shouted aloud at the inquest. Though volunteers had rushed to help local people and rescue teams at the disaster scene, Lord Robens of Walsingham, the former Labour MP Alf Robens, chairman of the National Coal Board (NCB) had carried on with his scheduled business, going to accept an appointment as chancellor of the University of Surrey. He would try and hide the causes of the slide and claim that nothing could have been done to prevent it. He never apologised.

A Tribunal of Inquiry found that the National Coal Board had been responsible for the disaster, "due to ignorance, ineptitude and a failure of communication".
The Aberfan disaster was not some unpredictable freak of nature. It could have been foreseen. Aberfan lies below Merthyr Mountain, on the bank of the River Taff, near the Merthyr Vale colliery. Like other mountain areas in Britain it has a high rainfall. Where mining subsidence has accentuated cracks in the sandstone of the mountain, the water penetrates down until it reaches layers of coal or clay, when it bubbles back to the surface as springs and streams down the slopes. One such stream was buried under Tip 7.

As far back as 1927 a Professor Knox delivered a paper to the South Wales Institute of Engineers in Cardiff, warning that if water accumulated in tips it would cause landslides. Collieries which failed to pay for drainage to remove the water would end up paying compensation for the results. Among those who studied this paper was a man who would later be Production Director of the NCB's South Western Division, covering Merthyr Vale, near Aberfan.

Before nationalisation, in 1947, the mines in this area were owned by the Powell Duffryn company. It was at one of their collieries, the Albion, five miles from Aberfan, that on December 5, 1939, some 180,000 tons of wste from a tip slid down the hillside, into the road, the canal and the River Taff. Powell Duffryn commissioned a consultant engineer to investigate, and he produced a study called "The Sliding of Colliery Rubbish Tips".

In November 1944 a large part of the conical Tip No.4 at Merthyr Vale slipped down the hillside. The tip had partly lay on loose material left from an earlier slide. Earlier that year company officials had assured the local council that there was no immediate danger from the tip, and said they were starting to have drainage trenches dug. When the November slip happened the colliery agent blamed the rain, and told the council it could have been worse but for the drainage channels. In fact the No4 tip had buried 400 foot of a stream.

By the time of the Aberfan disaster the waste was being tipped on Tip.No7, and there was a new danger. Mechanised mining methods brought a new kind of waste, fine dust left when the smallest amounts of coal were extracted. These tailings could not be piled high as more solid material, and their inclusion considerably lowered the "angle of repose" at which a pile would settle significantly. In rain they could turn to a wet slurry, sliding down into watercourses, then drying to form a solid blockage behind which more water accumulated until it flooded.

Already in 1959 and 1960 the council, backed by the Merthyr Vale Labour Party, had raised concern over flooding and the dangers of tip slides. In 1963 part of the foot of Tip No.7 was washed away by a spring, leaving a steep face over 70ft. high. A consulative committee, attended by miners' representatives and others on November 26, 1963, heard fears of further slides. The colliery manager visited the tip, and decided tipping of tailings must stop. There had already been a decision in the South Western Division that such waste should be poured into disused shafts. But the tipping continued.

On March 29, 1965, at Tymawr, a tailings lagoon held behind rubbish at the base of a tip burst its banks and flowed over railway tracks and the main road for hundreds of yards, wrecking cars in the car park and threatening to flow into the mine shafts. It cost the NCB £20,000 but somehow the incident never made into records at the Board's headquarters. Nor had the 1963 slides of waste at Tip 7 over by Aberfan.

Yet local people did express fears about what could happen if waste contnued to be tipped on the hillside behind their school. The Merthyr Express reported on January 11 1964 that a local councillor warned a planning meeting "if the tip moved it could threaten the whole school".

Perhaps other voices were getting more attention. On 7 July 1965, the colliery manager and senior engineers from the area NCB visited the Aberfan tips with the managing director of a fuel company that was interested in reclaiming coal from the waste tips. Apparently they saw no evidence of anything wrong or any instability.

And so on Friday, 21 October 1966, at 9.15 am, after smaller movements, the big slide began. Down the hillside came 140,000 tons of waste. At the bottom part it appeared as liquid, like a cold black lava tide. Smashing through two mains water pipes its flow increased, crossing a railway embankment to engulf more homes.

The tribunal found that the disaster could and should have been prevented. The main cause was a build-up of water in the pile and, when a small slip occurred, the disturbance caused the saturated, fine material of the tip to liquefy and it flowed down the mountain. In 1958, the tip had been sited on a known stream (as shown on earlier Ordnance Survey maps, and it had previously suffered several minor slips. Its instability was known, both to colliery management and to tip workers but very little was done about it. The Merthyr Tydfil Borough Council and National Union of Mineworkers were cleared of any wrongdoing. No NCB employee was sacked, demoted, or even disciplined. The NCB was ordered to pay compensation, though much of this was made up by government, and compensation to local families was later reduced because they had received sums from an appeal fund.

Labour's nationalisation of industries like coal in 1947 did not remove them from capitalism. On the contrary, they were expected to show a profit after paying out interest on loans made to compensate the former coal owners, who had risked miners' safety and pocketed subsidies, and continued recieving payments even when their former mines were closed as "uneconomic". State owned industries were modernised at public expense to serve the private sector, while neither their workers nor the public gained any control over bureaucratic management.

Bosses and bureaucrats anywhere, management members, aim to increase profit, keep down costs, empty their in-trays, look the other way when necessary, endear themselves to their superiors, raise their status and earnings, and make sure anything that goes wrong will be blamed on someone else, preferably lower down in the workforce, or on unpredictable factors beyond their control. Anyone, manager or worker, who sees their responsibility to the wider comunity, the environment and humanity is asking for trouble with their careers, and woe betide the worker who speaks out of turn let alone expects a say in things.

Since Aberfan we have seen several major disasters, not least in the Thatcher era of "deregulation" - the Kings Cross fire(1987), the sinking of the aptly- named Herald of Free Enterprise off Zeebrugge(1987) and the Marchioness pleasure boat in the Thames, and major rail crashes, not to mention the continuing toll on workers' lives in the construction industry. Nor can we forget that this year was the twentieth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. State ownership with bureaucratic rule and control of information does not equal socialism. But we know that if global capital continues its way, under whatever political labels, the planet itself is threatened.

At the Labour Party conference in Manchester last month the party leadership was defeated on issues of public housing, privatisation in the Health Service, and the watering-down of the government's long awaited Corporate Manslaughter and Homicide Bill. Transport and General Workers' general secretary Tony Woodley said the bill only allowed companies to be fined, and would give guilty directors a "get out of jail free" card.

We will see whether this government takes more notice of union or Labour party members, or continues listening to the City and big employers. The tide of opinion in this country has swung against big business and privatisation, but on this as on the peace and war issues, the public mood still needs to find political expression. Socialists should be getting far more support, but whether in the Labour Party or out of, we have to ask how we realise this potential.

As we remember the victims of Aberfan, the children slaughtered when their lives had hardly begun, let us recognise the human cost of continuing to subordinate everything to profit, and the need to gain not just public ownership but democratic control by society over our industries and environment. It is a life and death question.


Much of the information about the history leading up to the disaster is from Victor Bignell's study on the Aberfan Disaster in Catastrophic Failures, published 1977 by the Open University.

I was spurred to write something on this by a TV news item on the village marking the anniversary, but also by fellow-blogger Mark Elf covering it in his blog Jews Without Frontiers. He also provides a reference to other resources at

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