How the coal criminals escaped justice 

How the coal criminals escaped justice 

As the European Commission tries to convince member states to switch away from polluting coal, it is important to mark the 1966 Aberfan disaster in which 116 children and 28 adults died when coal waste collapsed on the Welsh mining village. 

A build-up of water in the rock and shale caused it to slide downhill as slurry with an inquiry finding the National Coal Board (NCB) wholly to blame and it was ordered to pay compensation for loss and personal injury. The ruling was disputed until 1997.

The negligence of the NCB and its chair, Lord Alfred Robens, who died in 1999, have been singled out for particular criticism. 

For the 50 years before the disaster, millions of tonnes of mining debris from the Merthyr Vale colliery were dumped on the side of Mynydd Merthyr, above Aberfan.

On October 21, 1966, at 9.15am, after several days of heavy rain, 150,000 tonnes of the waste broke away and fell towards the school, picking up more debris as it fell. It was the last day of the school term. 

Pantglas Junior School was covered and its pupils and teachers died from either the impact or suffocation.

A few survivors were found, but no one was saved after 11am that day.

Children who survived talk about growing up with few friends, discouraged from playing too noisily to avoid disturbing grieving parents. 

A “generation of children has been wiped out”, said George Thomas, secretary of state for Wales from 1968 and 1970. 

Broadcaster Vincent Kane, who reported on the disaster, said he felt residents were betrayed by the media.

“Somehow or other after the disaster, as controversy followed controversy, a general climate of opinion developed that the surviving community appeared to be a problem, awkward, greedy and grasping troublemakers,” Kane said at the 50th anniversary in 2016. 

He said coverage failed to expose the lies and say who was really responsible. 

“The Aberfan community were the victims, not the problem. The press, the media, has an abiding responsibility to probe and penetrate, in Aberfan, perhaps Wales’ darkest hour in the 20th century, we should have been passionate in pursuit of the truth. Instead, we were pedestrian.”

The NCB’s legal team said it was caused by a “critical geological environment” and said there was no way of predicting the accident. 

But the danger of dumping waste on hillsides exposed to rain were well-known and, under cross-examination, Robens acknowledged the NCB’s responsibility for the disaster.

But the NCB and UK government refused to accept full financial responsibility and the Aberfan Disaster Fund was left to pay £150,000 towards removing what remained of the tip that overlooked the village.

This sum was finally repaid by then prime minister Tony Blair’s Labour government in 1997.



Pantglas Junior School. Picture credit: YouTube

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