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Tigers don’t act like house cats

This is an interview I conducted a couple of years ago with Susan Dodd, author of The Ocean Ranger: Remaking the promise of oil

The article was originally published at the Halifax Media Co-op on July 3rd, 2013

34 years ago today the oil rig the Ocean Ranger sank off the coast of Newfoundland during a particularly nasty winter storm. The entire crew of 84 perished.

As facts came to light in the subsequent days and weeks after the Ocean ranger disaster the underlying causes became obvious.

A royal commission found that operational and safety training was lacking, that safety equipment was inadequate or missing, and that safety protocols were effectively non-existent. As well, the design of the rig was flawed.

“Time and again publics trust governments to ensure that companies operate with reasonable prudence. Time and again we are shocked by a new disaster caused by corporate negligence.” Susan Dodd.

Testimony and memos clearly established that it was corporate greed more than anything else that made Odeco and Mobil, the companies that together led the venture, cut corners.

What also became clear is that federal and provincial governments did nothing to keep these corporations honest, lacking the will to enforce the few regulations that were on the books.

And the people of Newfoundland also knew it, for it was widely reported in the media.

Yet over time the story changed. For Newfoundland in the early eighties oil was the future, the way out of poverty and dependence. Corporate greed and governmental negligence didn’t fit that narrative.

So the story became one of a particularly bad storm, and how that storm taught valuable lessons to a pioneering offshore oil industry. The people who died were no longer seen as victims of negligence bordering on the criminal, but as heroes who gave their lives for progress.

How and why the story changed are questions tackled in The Ocean Ranger: Remaking the Promise of Oil, written by Haligonian Susan Dodd, assistant professor of humanities at the University of King’s College.

Dodd was sixteen when the Ocean Ranger sank. Her older brother Jim was one of those who lost his life in the disaster.

In her book Dodd writes about a state of complacency among the public that time and again allows corporations to pursue profits without being slowed down by too many rules or questions.

I have to be clear, it is not a moral issue, [corporations] are what they are. Tigers don’t act like house cats, and if you expect them to you will be eaten.

Looking at the Ocean Ranger disaster, but also the Westray mine disaster, and most recently the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico we begin to see a pattern, Dodd argues.

“Time and again publics trust governments to ensure that companies operate with reasonable prudence. Time and again we are shocked by a new disaster caused by corporate negligence.

We say we will ‘never forget’. Then we forget. And then it happens again,” writes Dodd.

We met with Dodd earlier this month to talk about the book.

Susan Dodd. Photo Craig Buckley

Q: The interplay between your very personal connection with the disaster, and the more distanced reporting on the events and the conclusions you draw make for a fascinating read. But it must have been difficult for you to write.

SD: The project had been building since I saw the enquiry report. It is the report that really triggered it. Loss is loss. But this sense that there had been an injustice that somehow had been managed but yet not closed off, that was the real motivation.

It was the most difficult thing I have ever done. I would have panic attacks the day before an interview,and sometimes I would be flat for two days after. I have never experienced anything this intense.

Q: In your book you draw parallels between the Ocean Ranger, the Westray Mine disaster, even the gigantic 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

SD: It’s 10 years from the Ocean Ranger to Westray, and the basic socio-political causes are identical. People above ground or on shore presuppose that there is a robust regulatory regime. It doesn’t matter how many times we read in the newspaper that there have been cuts in health and safety, that the feds are cutting regulators.

Corporations aren’t our friends, they are profit making organizations, and that doesn’t mean they are blood-thirsty, it means that they prioritize money making over everything else. Unless there is a counterbalance in government they will emphasize profit. You see this around the world.

I have to be clear, it is not a moral issue, [corporations] are what they are. Tigers don’t act like house cats, and if you expect them to you will be eaten.

Q: Soon after the disaster the provincial and federal governments called a public enquiry. In your book you talk about the two-sided nature of such enquiries.

SD: Enquiries have this tremendous potential for healing, which I think is essential. On the other hand they provide a distraction and move people to thinking about technical chains of events and away from the broader socio-political conditions that led to the disaster in the first place.

I consider Royal Commissions to be very much about the theatre of justice, and I mean that in a positive way. The community needed to see the evidence presented in its fullness so they could go through a dramatic engagement with the material and get to a point that when the report was produced it felt like they wrote it themselves.

There is an extent [people of Newfoundland] saw culprits on the stand and so they felt that they were answered in a way by the people who did this to them, the out of town managers.

Yet when you are listening to testimony in an enquiry you will be listening to the shore manager for Odeco. You wont be hearing about the guy [at the headquarters] in New Orleans who is receiving phone calls from that shore manager and giving advice on how to not spend money on health and safety.

Q: Part of the enquiry looked at regulations specifically?

SD: There was this big conference with experts from all over the world. By rights that should have been done in 1980, instead of waiting until the catastrophe happened.

The [real] lesson learned was not a technological lesson, but the lesson that you cannot expect corporations to operate as if they are in an American jurisdiction when they are not. They don’t think of us as Americans, they didn’t feel any need to regulate themselves, they behaved as they would have in any third world country, and unfortunately our men were on board.

Q: In you book you talk about financial settlements also having this double-edged quality.

SD: I could talk forever about settlements and their strange double-sided quality. First there is the material need to consider, by widows and or people who lose a person who is contributing to their family income. That is crucial, that is a civil case, a private relationship between [the family of] the person who is lost and the agency that is accountable,

I did my doctorate on the aftermath of the Westray disaster, and that was really intense. The questions of money, even of compensation money, changes people, at least in their sense of their capacity to speak publicly about events.

Once you accept money people do expect you to shut up and go home. It privatizes it. The civil suits are private, and it means that you received a kind of atonement from the culprit and it depoliticizes. It pulls you into this language of equivalence, which people accept extremely reluctantly. You’ve got the cheque in hand, you have contractually accepted. It is emotionally very difficult for the survivors.

Q: Any lessons for today, given that exploratory drilling in the Nova Scotia offshore is set to begin in 2015?

SD: There is kind of a worship of expertise. You assume that these people are good at what they do. I don’t know how much you can force [these corporations] to do anything, but you can strongly encourage them to at least keep in mind the ecological and health and safety aspects.

If you don’t pressure them, then they wont do it.

This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Ocean Ranger: Remaking the Promise of Oil, by Susan Dodd, is published by Fernwood Publishing