A summer of catastrophes: capitalism kills

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In addition to the climatic volatility (creating victims of the most terrible monsoons for a century in India, Bangladesh and China; floods in Britain; drought in the south and east of Europe), this summer has been marked by several catastrophes: the railway accident releasing toxic substances in Ukraine, the earthquake in Japan causing a crack in a nuclear reactor, a deadly air disaster in Brazil, the collapse of a bridge in the USA. All these different kinds of tragic catastrophe are becoming more frequent. Yet they have the same fundamental causes. The media present these calamities as separate things, telling us that they are the result of a series of coincidences, which is a disgusting lie. The primary responsibility for these disasters lies with the capitalist system in its lunatic race for profits. This requires it to produce and sell as cheaply as possible, leading to the dilapidation of the infrastructure till it becomes dangerous, to permanently overusing machines, to renewing materials, to making economies in personnel, to the overexploitation of resources, without the least concern for the risks to the environment and above all with total contempt for human life on the whole planet.

A toxic mode of production

In the west of Ukrainian close to the Polish border, in the region of Lviv, a train transporting 15 tanks of inflammable and very toxic yellow phosphorus was derailed on 16 July. The pressure valves were broken on the dilapidated tanks which should have been withdrawn from service five years ago. 6 tank-wagons full of phosphorus for the manufacture of fertiliser were smashed open releasing a toxic cloud that covered 86 square kilometres, in an area where over 11,000 people live. 16,000 people were medically examined and 184 of them hospitalised for phosphorus poisoning, some of them remaining for more than 3 weeks. In spite of the pollution of earth and air there was no evacuation organised and this was left to the initiative of the residents of the region: people were assured that the substance has dispersed without further damage to the atmosphere, and the emergency ministry spokesman on regional radio was eager to give assurances that the ‘situation is under control' and that there was no danger... These words were soon refuted by reality: phosphorus residues spontaneously burst into flames on contact with the air on 3 August, making the population run from the new risk to their respiratory tracts and life threatening lesions. We get an idea of the extent of the risk faced all the time from the fact that in the Ukraine alone about 50 million tons of merchandise are transported by rail every year, of which 70% consists of dangerous substances such as chlorine, nitrogen, ammonia and oil products. On the 3 August, in the same region of Lviv, a locomotive hit three tanker wagons full of petrol, causing a fire in the vicinity of a refinery and a paint factory. A week earlier, in the same station, another train was derailed and collided with unused wagons.

In Japan, on 16 July, in the Niigata region in the north west, there was an earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale. With 9 dead and a thousand injured, and more than 500 individual homes and 300 buildings destroyed, it was far from causing the same level of destruction as the Kobe quake on 17 January 1995 (6,400 dead, 40,000 injured, 200,000 homes destroyed), but it caused a fire in an electric transformer of the largest nuclear power plant in the world, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa. The operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) made no announcement for several hours after a leak of 1,200 litres of contaminated water, after having at first affirmed that the shock had not had any effect on the plant and after having denied any crack in the reactor. According to the Kyodo press agency, a hundred or so casks of contaminated waste were knocked over and their contents spilled. The Institute of Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety has recorded at least 67 anomalies in the functioning of the reactor. Tepco and a competitor have already admitted concealing several accidents some months ago. The Japanese government has however continued to assert that the leak has no consequences for the environment and some ‘scientific meetings' have been at pains to reassure us that there is no risk of human contamination.

"I believe that nuclear reactors can only work with the confidence of the population"' as the prime minister Shinzo Abe cynically declared to journalists. "Personally I think that a nuclear power station is the safest place in an earthquake" added an eminent professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and specialist in nuclear power[1].

Thirteen other nuclear facilities are under construction and the Japanese authorities have no intention of giving up an energy that supplies 30 to 40% of the country's electricity. However, the government has had to take the decision to close the power station for an unspecified time (at least a year) and the IAEA is inspecting it.

The risk is not limited to Japan, nor to seismic shocks. At the end of June there was a fire in a nuclear power plant in north Germany (at Krummel in Schleswig-Holstein, close to Hamburg), set off by a pump failure in the water surrounding the reactor, and a series of faults in the automatic fire extinguishers in the reactor. This launched a new round of polemics on the future of nuclear power. The spectre of a new Chernobyl is everywhere[2].

A recent World Bank study reported that there are 350-400,000 premature deaths in China due to air pollution (and 30,000 of them are children). Another 300,000 are dying due to the poor quality of ventilation in buildings, workshops and factories (without counting those due to working conditions or handling dangerous materials). In the countryside poor water quality is responsible for 60,000 deaths a year.

Capitalism is a catastrophe for humanity

On the 1 August a bridge over the Mississippi collapsed in Minneapolis, Minnesota. About 50 vehicles toppled into the river 20 metres below: 5 dead, 79 injured, a dozen missing. This 160 metre bridge of steel and concrete, with an eight lane road across it, constructed 40 years ago, had been inspected in 2005 and 2006 but no structural defect had been found. It was, however, classed as in need of repair since 2005[3]. Repairs on the metal framework were underway at the time of the event during the evening rush hour, without any decision to interrupt the flow of traffic. According to the local transport authority 200,000 vehicles cross this bridge every day and a school bus carrying about 60 children only just escaped the tragedy[4].

The country has 756 bridges with a similar steel structure, of which at least 27% are thought to be in an equally alarming state as the one that collapsed.

The law of profit, of immediate returns, the heightened competition between states, is a permanent threat both now and for the future of the world. Those who sing the praises of the progress of civilisation have become like the sorcerer's apprentice, the high priests in a dance of death, a ghastly black mass around the altar of decadent capitalism which, with total contempt for human life, delivers its wage slaves up to sacrificial rituals more absurd and barbaric than the cruellest societies in history.

The news has given us another example in a different domain. On 17 July in Brazil, a TAM airbus overshot the wet runway of Sao Paulo's Congonhas airport, in the heart of a residential area, sweeping across a very busy avenue before hitting a fuel station and cargo terminal belonging to TAM, causing a fire. At least 207 were killed, the biggest air catastrophe in Brazil's history[5].

Brazil's airport personnel have been protesting against the deterioration in their working conditions for several years: a quasi-absence of aeroplane checks due to financial economies, use of the cheapest fuel for refuelling, equipment not replaced, ever denser air traffic going along with a policy of reducing the number of mechanics and air traffic controllers to get the maximum profit.

The inquiry at Sao Paulo revealed a multitude of anomalies: the runway had been notoriously dangerous for some years, safety conditions were not fulfilled with a landing strip that was too short and traffic too dense.

It had been resurfaced the previous month but the work had not been finished, and the runway had been put back into service at the end of June without the drainage channels to remove rainwater being completed. Many had denounced the premature reopening for purely commercial reasons. Four similar accidents (uncontrolled skidding on the runway) had already occurred in recent months. At the time of the landing the sun was entirely blotted out by heavy rain. And the day before the accident the government had refused to close the runway as demanded by the air traffic controllers at the airport. Further, the TAM plane was missing one of its two pressure inverters, which allow the aircraft to slow down on landing. Globo TV even claimed that this equipment had been withdrawn after a fault the previous week and that the plane had difficulty braking on the same runway the day before the accident. A video showed that the plane had accelerated after touching down close to the marker for the limit of the runway for landing, which may mean that the pilot tried to take off again realising that he could not stop in time.

A representative of the airline gave assurances that the plane was airworthy even in the absence of two pressure inverters. However an identical breakdown killed 99 people at the same airport in 1996.

"The government is obviously trying to convince public opinion that the runway at Congonhas is not the cause. They want to do everything to blame the pilot", was the reaction of the president of the pilots' association.

Evidently. Less than 15 days after the catastrophe at Congonhas the official inquiry attempted to throw the blame for the accident onto the pilot[6].

Faced with such dangers and against such working conditions the Brazilian air traffic controllers of Curitiba, Manaos and Salvador went on strike, spontaneously, on 30 March last. They addressed a prophetic message to all workers in a Manifesto before paralysing the service, embarking on a hunger strike and occupation to put pressure on the authorities of the Aeronautic Command, the military organ responsible for air traffic control in Brazil: "We have reached the limits of human endurance, we are in no fit condition to maintain this service, which is of great importance to this country, given the way we are managed and treated. WE HAVE NO CONFIDENCE IN OUR EQUIPMENT, OR IN THOSE WHO MANAGE US! We are working with rifles pointed at us..." (WR 305). There had already been a collision between a Boeing and another plane at the end of September 2006 in Mato Grosso, which killed 154 passengers. The controllers had already carried out several stoppages to protest against the accusations of the government and military authorities that they were responsible. In their Manifesto the workers defended themselves against these slanders: "Six months after the collision there have been no positive signs about the difficulties faced by the air traffic controllers. On the contrary, they have got worse. As if these technical-work difficulties are not bad enough, we are also accused of being saboteurs, in order to try to cover up the faults in the management of the system..." The strike expressed the air traffic controllers' indignation at the government and military command's response, which included imprisoning some of the controllers. This Manifesto and the strike also denounced all the hypocrisy of the whole Brazilian bourgeoisie and its responsibility for the crisis of air transport, from the left which is in government today to the right. The bourgeoisie also tried to hide the role of the unfettered competition between airlines, the policy of reducing costs, the overselling of tickets, the crowding of airspace, the increase in the number of flights, compelling the air traffic controllers and aeroplane pilots to work in extreme conditions.

The conditions are even worse today. Six months after the accident at Congonhas Airport, a power cut and breakdown in the emergency generators paralysed the Amazon air traffic control centre again, leading to the cancellation of 10% of flights over Brazil and forcing the controllers to work in the most precarious conditions once again.

Only the working class, through its struggles, can expose and fight against the real culprit behind all these tragedies: the capitalist system. Wim 10.8.07

[1] It is however true that Japan is the state whose nuclear power stations are by far the best equipped to withstand earthquakes. In a country like France for example where some power stations are built near fault lines (Alsace, PACA...) without the least earthquake protection we can only imagine the horror that could be caused by an earth tremor...

[2] We have not forgotten that reactor number 4 in the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded on 26 April 1986. Radioactive material was deposited all around, causing thyroid cancer, particularly in large areas of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. We were also asked to believe that the radioactive fallout stopped at the frontiers, under the protection of the anticyclone over the Azores; otherwise it would have swept across the whole of Europe from East to West. The official death toll from Chernobyl varies between 50,000 and 150,000, yet the former secretary general of the UN, Kofi Annan, admitted afterwards that at least 7 million people had been affected by this catastrophe.

About 50 operatives were given the job of collecting highly radioactive debris from the roof and immediate surroundings in the first days after the catastrophe. Each operative had only 90 seconds to carry out the task. In this time he was exposed to extremely high levels of radiation and received only scant protection from derisory safety equipment, principally designed to prevent the inhalation of radioactive dust. Many of these front line workers developed cancers and died in the following years.

It is estimated that 350,000 decontamination operatives or ‘liquidators', from the army, factory workers, local police and firemen, participated at the start of the work of confining and decontaminating the radioactive debris in the period 1986-7. Nearly 240,000 of these ‘liquidators', who took turns every 5 minutes, received the highest doses of radiation when they carried out the vital work of limiting the effects of radioactivity in a 30 kilometre zone around the explosion. Following this the number of liquidators listed topped 600,000. The concrete foundations under the heart of the reactor threatened to collapse. So tens of thousands of miners were brought from around Moscow and Donbass to tunnel under the reactor to dig out a cave. A cooling coil of helium was installed to cool the foundations. The miners worked in very difficult conditions due to the heat and the massive radiation. Their sacrifice was in vain, since the cooling circuit was never installed and was finally replaced by a concrete sarcophagus over the top. For several years cracks have appeared in the sarcophagus, but neither the Ukraine nor Russia nor any other authority wants to take responsibility for the new risks, nor above all for the enormous cost of the necessary work... We are told that this tragedy was an exception due to the backwardness of the eastern countries and their technology, to the lack of maintenance inherited from the Stalinist era, and that the nuclear reactors of more modern states do not run such a risk. The fissure in the Japanese reactor and before that the accident at Three Mile Island in the United States show the contrary. The same risk exists everywhere.

[3] A similar study found about 60 structures defective and at high risk in a country such as France.

[4] In the same period other ‘accidents' whose consequences would have been much more dramatic were only just prevented. On the 18 July an underground gas pipe exploded in New York in the heart of Manhattan, at Lexington and 41st Street, close to Grand Central Station, causing great panic (due to the force and violence of the explosion people feared a new terrorist attack reviving the nightmare of 11 September 2001). One person died of a heart attack and about 30 others were injured. The 60 cm diameter pipe, installed in 1924, exploded due to the heat. The mayor expressed the fear of a release of asbestos. New York is full of aging underground pipes and several dozen have exploded in the city over the last twenty years.

On 29 July there was a fire on a Parisian metro train on one of the busiest lines of the network. 150 passengers stuck underground were poisoned by the noxious fumes within one of the compartments. 35 were taken to hospital. A fire in a completely worn out brake-block on a carriage was the cause of the incident. The consequences could have been much worse if it had not taken place on a Sunday morning when it is least crowded.

This gives an indication of the dangers which the world's populations are constantly exposed to.

[5] This is not the first time that a plane has crashed in a city centre, into a building, a road or a residential area (without being able to point to a terrorist attack). The list is long: in Venezuela on 16 March 1969 a DC9 crashed into a shanty town with 163 dead and about a hundred injured. For Europe it is enough to remember two similar accidents: in October 1992 a Boeing 747 crashed into two buildings in the workers district of Amsterdam: 53 dead. The effect is similar to bombardment: buildings ripped apart, a sea of fire, flames 30 metres high transforming the victims into living torches or crushing them under tons of concrete and steel.

On 25th July 2000 a Concorde (celebrated as the most beautiful and technologically advanced aircraft) en route to New York crashed into a Gonesse hotel in the Oise Valley two minutes after taking off from Roissy Airport. The 109 passengers on board were killed as well as 4 hotel employees. The inquiry revealed that a wheel had been damaged during take-off by a metal strip that had fallen onto the runway from another plane. The debris from the tyre caused a rupture in a fuel tank where the fire started.

[6] The theory of ‘human error' itself in such a case is not at all surprising given the responsibility and the working conditions in which pilots are constrained to work, since they must carry out a long return journey on the same day or with a single hour for rest, the time taken for refuelling.

General and theoretical questions: