Martin Cherniack on America’s Worst Industrial Disaster

The worst occupational health disaster in American history occurred eighty-five years ago in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia.

The Union Carbide Corporation needed to transport water from the New River to a power plant. 

To get the water to the power plant, it had to bore a tunnel through Gauley Mountain. The Hawk’s Nest tunnel was started in 1930 and completed in 1932. 

But many of the workers who had built the tunnel were dying rapidly from acute silicosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling rock dust.

Martin Cherniack, a doctor at the University of Connecticut Health Center, and the author of the definitive book on the disaster – The Hawk’s Nest Incident: America’s Worst Industrial Disaster (Yale University Press, 1986) – estimates that 746 workers died from working in the tunnel. 

How many workers worked in the tunnel?

“By Union Carbide’s own accounting, it was over 4,900,” Cherniack told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last month. “It wasn’t just work in the tunnel. A lot of the work was done outside of the tunnel. At any one time, about a third of the workers were full time in the tunnel, about a third of the workers were outside of the tunnel, and about a third of the workers were between inside and outside.”

What was the racial breakdown of the workers?

“More than two thirds of the workers were black. The breakdown of the outside workers were predominately white. The workers in the tunnel were over 70 percent black. And the workers who worked between inside and outside were black and white.” 

“The black workforce was from entirely out of the area.” 

This was during the depression when work was hard to come by. People flocked from all over to make the 30 cents an hour they were paying. You make the point in your book that workers were camped out in the area because there was high turnover and they were waiting to fill the positions that came available. And the thing that made this America’s worst industrial accident was not the cave-ins, or explosions or dismemberment by machine, although that happened. But it was silicosis.

“It was disease. It was not accidents. The mortality statistics of the county do detail mine related deaths that were traumatic. There were a few, but not that many. It was well under a dozen.”

“The big issue was silicosis. And specifically acute silicosis. That was an extremely aggressive form of silicosis due to the extraordinarily high concentration of silica within the sandstone.”

What is silicosis?

“It is a disease that goes back to ancient times. It was well understood in international circles and in the United States. It was traditionally known as a disease that was fairly slowly progressive. The inhaled silica caused a fibrosis or scarring internal to the lung. And it ultimately restricts lung volume and breathing. We have a fair amount of experience in this country with silicosis in the granite sheds in Vermont. But it was a very low grade of silica. It was mixed with dust. And the disease was pretty gradual.”

“There were more accelerated forms which occurred over months or years, which we saw in South Africa. But what we hadn’t seen until Hawk’s Nest was people getting sick from a pneumonia from the silica within a matter of months. This was called acute silicosis. In many ways it was a new disease. There had been examples, but there had never been an epidemic like this.”

How quickly did they die?

“The first men died within six months.”

While they were building the tunnel, men were dying.  How long did it take them to dig the tunnel?

“It was done at incredible speed. From beginning to end it was done in fourteen months. But there was a lot of cleaning up to do, there was wall work to do, there was building the railroad through it.”

“There was a fairly good gap between the end of the fourteen months of digging the tunnel and when the power went online in 1936 or early 1937. By 1932, the bulk of the work had been done. They started in 1930.”

How many people died?

“A variety of estimates were made. What I did was a bit different than what others did. There was a number that came out of federal hearings – 496. The company acknowledged around 109 deaths. There was a burial in the next county that involved somewhere between 43 and 62 bodies. And there were other sources based on a variety of lawsuits that were fairly unsuccessful.”

“My estimate was well over 700. It was based on the recognition that the black population was non-resident. The contractor, Rinehart and Dennis, had a policy not to hire West Virginia blacks.” 

Why is that?

“It was believed that West Virginia blacks would not take the kind of punishment and abuse that southern blacks would take. One of the interesting things about West Virginia and mountain Appalachia is that it did not have a slave tradition. Since the Civil War there had been considerably more independence. Although there was a great deal of racism in the area, West Virginia blacks were seen as more independent and less willing to be disciplined.”

“I ended up looking at the lung disease mortality rates in that period of 1931 through 1935 among local white men. I made an estimate from that and then computed that the black men working in the tunnel would have had a similar rate of death, even though they would have left the area and there was no record.”

You put the death total at 764. But you also say it’s a conservative estimate and it could have been hundreds more.

“It could have been hundreds more. It’s highly probable that black exposure is higher. I assume that whites and blacks had the same levels of exposure, but we know that white workers were more likely to work outside and also be in mixed work – inside and outside.”

Acute silicosis was caused by the thickness of the dust?

“Not the thickness necessarily. It was the purity of the dust. If you look at something like granite, you might have a silica content of 15 percent or less. In the samples we looked at from Hawk’s Nest, they were over 99 percent pure silica.”

But you report in your book that the dust was so thick that visibility was only a couple of feet inside the mine. They could barely see their fellow workers.

“Yes. Take coal mining. Dust levels could be very high. And there was black lung. But you didn’t have a disease like acute silicosis.”

In that sense, acute silicosis is more deadly than black lung?

“Much more deadly than black lung.” 

Was justice delivered to Union Carbide by the lawsuits?

“No. There were two big trials. Both resulted in hung juries, although in the second one, the jury voted 11 to 1 in favor of the plaintiffs.”

“There was a very small settlement. They ran a range from several hundred dollars to sixty to seventy dollars.” 

“At that point, silicosis was not covered under workers’ compensation, because it was considered a disease. West Virginia and then followed by other states passed workers compensation laws that included silicosis as a compensable disease at a fairly low rate of compensation. But it did two other things that were really quite cynical.” 

“First, it was backdated so that anyone who had the disease or exposure or a claim before the enactment of the law could not file a claim. But it was also the case that if you had a case that preceded passage of the law, you couldn’t file a tort claim. It was an extremely cynical piece of legislation that excluded anyone who worked at Hawk’s Nest.”

“To add to it, I tried finding the deliberations of the West Virginia legislature on this law. And it had all disappeared. I went to the state legal archive – it was the only file that had disappeared.”

What’s the evidence that it had disappeared?

“The files were empty.” 

You write in your book that this law came under heavy criticism from Vito Marcantonio, a Republican Congressman from New York City. At Congressional hearings, he read into the record an indictment of the law that had been published in 1935 in the Bulletin of the International Juridical Association: “Whether or not the West Virginia workmen’s silicosis law is declared unconstitutional, the subservience of the West Virginia legislature to the interests of employers is almost unparalleled in its hypocrisy and the statute must be wiped out.”

“Congressman John Conyers, early in his career, brought up Hawk’s Nest as an example of corporate criminal liability,” Cherniack said.

But there was no state action against Union Carbide or the contractor Rinehart and Dennis?


[For the complete q/a format Interview with Martin Cherniack, see 35 Corporate Crime Reporter 5(12), February 1, 2021, print edition only.]

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